He found him hiding in the alleyway, wedged in the space where Stark Tower’s walls dipped inward just before the loading docks.
At night, the docks were quiet, a hidden part of Stark Industries with cameras and security guards on patrol, but tucked away from the glare of the city lights. It was Tony’s favorite time of day, to duck down and grab his own private shipments from storage, to stroll through the vast spaces, filled with secured crates and locked containers, letting the events of the day decompress. He’d almost missed the pitch-black sneakers peeking out from the shadows. Not the usual place to hide; sometimes he’d see a guy or two loitering outside the front entrance, where pedestrians leaving the tower were most likely to pass their way and drop a few coins in hand. But never back here, in the alley that smelled of piss and car exhaust.
“Uh, hello?” Tony stepped down the metal ramp, his footsteps rattling with each step. It was cool for a late spring evening, and the breeze chilled his sweat-damp skin, still covered in grease and grime from his workshop. “Hey buddy, you can’t stay out here, it gets cold at night. I know it’s spring, but it’s still New York, y’know? There’s a shelter down east on 45th that usually has space.”
The shoes disappeared into the shadows, and Tony caught a glimpse of metal on the guy’s left wrist and fingers as the man fiddled with some fabric draped around his frame.
“No way,” Stark whispered, taking a step forward. “Friday, kill surveillance out here and prep the suit. Daddy’s about to do something stupid.”
“I suppose things have been rather dull around here lately,” the A.I.’s quiet response filtered from the StarkPhone in his pocket; it wasn’t J.A.R.V.I.S.’S rapier wit, but it would do for now.
Tony crouched down, raising his arms in what he hoped was the universal sign of don’t kill the innocent messenger, and crept forward.
He wouldn’t have recognized the bearded face turned stubbornly away in the faint light, but the tips of the man’s fingers were still visible, shiny metal with distinctive lines across the backs of the digits. It was him. Tony swallowed, hard. An inventor’s wet dream, that arm. He’d seen all the footage from D.C. and everything else J.A.R.V.I.S. could dig up last year. That arm was a work of art. Unique. A singular example of engineering that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
The possibly crazy and potentially deadly assassin attached to it? Maybe not so much.
“Yeah. Um. I’m not very good at this. But hey, yay, you made it this far. Maybe you should come inside now?” Stark settled on one knee, in the faint light of the security lamp overhead. Far away enough that he hoped he could run, if the guy made any sudden moves, or at least have enough space for the suit to form around him. But hey, the guy can’t be totally off his rocker if he showed up here, at Stark Tower, right? “You are, uh, James Buchanan Barnes, right? No offense, but I usually don’t invite random homeless guys into my tower.”
“Who’s askin’?” The figure grunted, pulling his shiny left arm closer, covered in what Tony could now see was a dark blue sling fitted around the man’s broad shoulders.
The ground rattled and steam rose from the vent nearby, a subway train passing beneath their feet, and Tony tried to gentle his smile as he studied the guy, letting the noise of the train carry away his hesitation. Barnes looked like shit warmed over, as he leaned into the light. The man’s clothes hung oddly in places; his dark hair matted in knots and appeared to have been hacked at strange angles, ironically like someone with one arm and a pair of scissors had tried to trim it. It was long enough to hide the guy’s sharp jawline and too-pale face, much too pale for a guy that had been sleeping rough for a year. Barnes’s beard was a mess, too, a scraggly thing that Tony wouldn’t be surprised if the man had lice living in that thing; it almost looked alive.
And his eyes—a brilliant blue with bruise-black bags underneath, lost and so, so afraid. The kind of fear that led men to do desperate things, haunted and fragile-looking. The man’s eyes were the only part of the guy’s face that looked alive, darting from side to side in sharp movements, as though Hydra were going to pop up from the New York sewer vents or something.
“I’m a friend of Cap’s. Name’s Tony Stark,” Stark said finally, after the train had passed. “I can help you.”
“Why?” the man grunted, skeptical. “Bet you just wanna see my arm. Stark.”
“Course I do,” Tony agreed easily, slowly rising to his feet. “But usually I try to wait until at least the second date.”
This surprised a painful-sounding laugh from the guy, and Tony grinned. “C’mon, Barnes. You can’t stay out here. It’s warmer inside, and Friday’s gonna order us some grub. You’re hungry, right? Rude to not eat when your host is eating, you know, and I’m starving.”
The man rose to his feet almost methodically, like a coil unwound, and matched the engineer’s pace as Stark headed up the gangplank. It was strange, having a six foot plus behemoth in black and smelling of sewer, following him; like the really mangy dog that Tony’d dragged into the mansion one time, before Howard had— well, it wasn’t like he could keep a pet alive, anyway. Robots were hard enough to care for.
And here he was, ushering a stray assassin into the tower—he still expected Howard to pop out of the shadows and shout at him, as he guided the taller man into his private elevator bank.
“Lock up honey-boo, I’ll come get my special delivery tomorrow,” Tony said, tapping nervously on his leg as the doors pinged shut behind them. “And get my usual times three from Luigi’s. Tell them to hurry.”
Friday’s answering ping was quieter than usual, displaying a surprising amount of tact that Tony hadn’t expected from the new A.I.
To be fair, this was probably a bad idea. A very bad idea. Now that Steve and the others had fucked off to the secret base in upstate New York, and Pepper had moved back to Malibu after the whole Ultron disaster, the tower was oddly empty. Strangely bereft of human occupants during the night. Even Hill had moved on, splitting her time between D.C. and Cap’s fancy new training pad.
He let his eyes roam over the silent figure sharing his elevator; the man had hunched protectively around his left arm, as though the light of the small space would catch its surface nd burn. The paper-thin fabric of the sling was just as filthy as the rest of him, and when the man moved Tony could almost swear he heard metal grinding. Not quite what he expected, to be honest. When Sam and Steve mentioned they were looking for a ghost, for Steve’s long lost war buddy who’d somehow become Hydra’s secret weapon… He expected more oomph, maybe. Someone scarier, than the guy here, who looked like a Project Runway rehab reject. He almost expected to see track marks on the guy’s arm, if he looked closely.
The doors opened with a hushed ping, and Tony ushered Barnes forward. The guy hesitated only for a moment as his eyes scanned the room, lingering on the windows and exits, before confused blue eyes sought out Tony’s gaze.
“Yeah, it’s not much,” Tony gestured to the pillows scattered across the floor and a beaten-up couch he’d stolen from the MIT auditorium when he had given a speech a few weeks ago. It had taken several months, but the place looked almost pristine, now, its glass windows replaced, floors and walls repaired. Again. Seriously, at this rate Tony should just buy a contractor company, put them on retainer for the Avengers. “Just got the repairs completed. Furniture’s still on order, should be here in a few weeks. But hey, has to be better than the street, right?”
“I slept beside a dumpster last night,” Barnes grunted. Something about the man’s voice sounded off to Tony. When he spoke, it felt like Barnes meant it, that he knew he didn’t belong here, believed it, even.
“Right. Definitely better than a dumpster.” Stark turned, pointing down another corridor. “Your bedroom and shower are that way, just pick a room. No offense buddy, but you have to shower before the food arrives. You smell worse than a rotting Chitauri, and I didn’t think that was even possible. I may have just spent thirty hours in the workshop, but even I have some standards. I’ll get you some clothes, should be a towel already in there. It’s too late to call tonight, unless we want a lecture about my sleep schedule, but we can give Steve a ring in the—”
Tony choked on his words, his breath leaving him and eyes wide with confusion and pain as something, something hard, tackled him from behind.
Then he was thrown forward, landing with a pained grunt on his back, his head crashing against the tile floor with a ringing thump that left his skull tingling. There was a weight on his chest, heavy and unmoving.
“Barnes?” he gasped, before fingers grazed his skin, cutting off his air, wrapping around his throat, metal and flesh and squeezing against his pulse point, so tight—his chest felt like fire, he couldn’t breath, he couldn’t—oh god, oh god, but it wasn’t wet, this time, his chest burned but his hair wasn’t wet, and he couldn’t breath— this couldn’t be happening, why wasn’t somebody doing something, why—
Tony’s fists scrambled for purchase, his legs bucking wildly against the tiles as his sneakered feet skated outwards. It was no use; the man sitting on his chest had a good fifty pounds of muscle on him, not to mention that arm, that silver arm flashing and grinding in high-pitched crunching noises as that gorgeous metal contraption literally choked the life out of him. And those blue eyes, so scared and confused moments before—gone. Replaced with dull and death and a pale continence so empty that Tony couldn’t remember what the man had looked like, before.
His vision went white around the edges—not like this, not now—white to gray and then the room started to fade, darker and darker. Tony blinked, the fear and pain and pressure on his chest burning him, burning from the inside out— and god, just let it end, already— just let it end—
And then it was over.
Tony rolled to the side, suddenly free, gasping for air. His hands came up to circle around his bruised throat, cradling the tender skin and choking as he inhaled, tried to keep his desperate breaths even and slow. It was no use. Every movement, every breath left him choking and coughing as his lungs sucked painfully inward. He could hear Friday’s frantic tone, a level of fear he didn’t remember programming into the newly minted A.I. as she called for him, over and over again. He groaned.
“Sir!” Friday called again, this time sounding as though her protocols had finally kicked in, and where was the goddamn suit? “Sir, I am dispatching emergency protocols—ambulance, emergency services—”
“Belay!” Tony gasped, clutching his throat. “Belay that, Friday. No. No ambulance.”
“But Sir!” Friday protested, “By my readings your throat may have sustained damage that—”
“I’m okay,” Stark interrupted, shoving himself sideways until he managed to sit up. He blinked, taking another, shallower breath, feeling the way his chest rose and fell against his fingers. His scar tissue hurt, his chest burned. It took so much effort, to slow his breathing. “No cops.”
“Sir, this violates regulations set in place after—”
“I know the damn protocols, Friday,” Tony hissed, before coughing violently. His throat was bruised, there would probably be marks soon, the skin felt raw and sore to the touch. “Send me a damn gauntlet,” he choked a breath, a hand rising to hold against the scar tissue of his ruined chest. “And don’t go tattling to your big brother, either!”
The A.I. fell silent as Stark pushed up, using the wall to brace his weight as he stood. He scanned the room.
There, in the corner, tucked behind the edge of the dingy couch, was the man Romanoff had called the Winter Soldier, his head buried in hands of flesh and metal, hiding his face. This… this was the man that the Black Widow had feared, the soldier who’d fought Steve in D.C., and won. Tony couldn’t believe the video footage, back then.
Now, though, now he believed it.
Somehow during the scramble, the sling had fallen away, and the man’s metal arm whirred and twisted in unnatural movements, its panels and wires exposed as though it were possessed; a ghost in the shell of what once was a human being. The man’s shoulders seemed tense, his flesh and metal hands fisted painfully tight in the dark clumps of hair. The room was silent but for a quiet murmur from Barnes’s lips that Stark couldn’t quite make out.
Tony moved with slow steps, rubbing his throat as he went, pausing by the elevator as the door opened and a gauntlet formed around his left arm.
Two more steps took the genius to the cabinet he’d converted into a temporary wet bar, and armed with three fingers of scotch, he moved to sit on the lone couch, mere feet from the man who’d almost killed him.
“That was,” Tony coughed, taking a gentle sip before he continued. “Not what I was expecting.”
“Sorry,” Barnes gasped the words, then repeated it again, louder. “Sorry. Sometimes, some words—it’s like everything disappears and I’m back there, again. Sorry.”
Tony blinked, letting his head rest gently against the sofa cushions. “Wait, wait. It was something I said?”
“Don’t say his name.”
“Holy shit,” Tony muttered. He waved his gauntleted hand. “Okay. No talking about Capsicle by name. Got it.”
“I should go—” the man began to uncurl and Tony glanced over.
“No,” Tony interrupted. “You are safer here, and St—he would kick my ass if I let you go now.”
“I’m not safe,” the man protested, still on the floor. His voice sounded wrecked.
“Nope, you aren’t,” Tony agreed easily. “Probably at least a few scary former nazis lookin’ for you out there, not to mention a guy in red, white, and blue tights and his new sidekick.”
“Be reasonable, Stark.”
“Am.” Tony grimaced, pushing himself to his feet. “Just saying, it’s safer here than out there. Now come on Barnes, you still need a shower and I wanna get some ice for this totally unsexy collar of bruises. I seriously don’t even get a good story outta this one. At least, not a story that anyone would believe.”
“And then?” Barnes muttered reflexively.
“Then, we’ll have pizza and talk.” Tony tried for a casual shrug, wincing as his muscles protested. “Now chop chop, buddy. More showering, less stinking up my penthouse.”
Looking after a half-dead assassin with memory problems was easier than he expected.
For one, the guy had taken to pretending he was playing the ultimate game of hide and seek. As in, whenever Tony went looking for Barnes, the guy was never where Friday said he was. It was almost like his A.I. had decided to help Barnes sneak out of the kitchen or hide within the penthouse, whenever Tony surfaced long enough to realize he’d not seen his new resident assassin in several days.
They didn’t talk after that first night, when Tony had managed to convince the ghost that looked like Steve’s friend to shower and stay put, and Barnes had managed to dress himself in some cast-offs that Tony’d dug up from storage. And it wasn’t like the guy was really the, ah, talkative sort anyway. With a slice of pizza folded between his fingers, Barnes hadn’t said but three words the entire time he sat next to Tony on the sofa, eating his way through almost three boxes of New York’s finest slices. The guy had all but begged Tony not to call the Avengers, not yet, and Tony felt sucker-punched enough that night to agree. For one, the collar of black and blue around his throat was goddamn embarrassing, and anyway, Barnes looked contrite and scared enough to make promising not to call his old buddy for a while easy enough to accept.
And after that—well, it’d been almost ten days. Food disappeared from the fridge on a regular basis; he ordered enough take-out to feed a small army or one super soldier, so he at least knew the guy was eating, and Tony thought his A.I. would probably tell him if the metal-armed man had kicked the bucket, but this was getting ridiculous.
Tony rubbed tiredly at his eyes. “Friday, where’s our guest now?”
“Mr. Barnes is currently resting in his quarters, Sir.”
“Uh huh. And I suppose if I were to go knock on his door, he’s asked you alert him before then so he can disappear again, yes?”
“Sir did program me to provide whatever support is required by the residents of the tower,” the A.I. answered smartly, and Tony wanted to bash his head against the workbench. He’d only added the sarcasm subroutines a few days ago, and he was already regretting it.
“Right,” Tony rested his forehead against the desk. It was early still, barely dark outside, but he hadn’t slept in he didn’t even know how long. And when he did sleep, his nights were short, troubled things with images he didn’t want to remember; piles of unknown bodies or his friends, stacked high. Roger’s condescending tone, cursing his stupidity. He’d been so foolish, with his friend’s lives, so stupid— and now, the Avengers had moved out of the tower, Banner had fucked off to god knows where in the world, and even his live-in depressed assassin didn’t want to hang out. “How long has he been asleep, Friday?”
The A.I.’s hesitation was palpable, and Tony looked up suddenly, surprised, when instead of answer his question, Friday responded, “I will inform you when he awakens, Sir.”
“So he’s been asleep for a while, then,” Tony groaned, rubbing his chin. His goatee was overgrown, a rough mess of stubble across his cheeks. “That’s probably not good. Friday, is that good?”
“I wouldn’t know, Sir. My data is limited to a comparison with your sleep cycles, which clearly are not optimized.”
Tony stood slowly, waving his fingers through the holographic screen of his latest project to close the file. “Point taken. Remind me to rejigger your sarcasm routines, I think I must have done something wrong. J.A.R.V.I.S. never sassed me this much—”
“I doubt that very much, Sir.”
“Whatever,” Tony stumbled into the elevator. “Penthouse, Fri. I’m gonna sleep for a bit, but let me know when he wakes up, okay? He can’t keep hiding away like this, even if I suck at caring for stray animals.”
The doors pinged quietly, Friday’s only acknowledgement of his request.
He woke in a cold sweat, the feeling of icy metal fingers constricting against his throat as he gasped out in the dark, “Friday! Lights!”
Then, he was alone. The room felt as empty as he remembered. Pepper’s personal effects that had softened the cool modern lines of the furniture went with her to California, and nothing remained to break the unforgiving design. Tony rolled onto his side; his hands were shaking, and he blinked to clear his vision, shivering.
He stood suddenly, letting the feel of the soft wool of the carpet between his toes settle him. Pulling on a pair of pants, Tony stumbled into the kitchen. He managed to fill a glass with water and take a few sips before he sank to the floor, pulling his knees towards his bare chest. With trembling fingers, he ran a hand carefully across his chest, tracing the raised, puffy lines of pink still criss-crossing his skin.
It had taken months before he could bare to touch his skin, the circular mass of scarred flesh and grafted bone and metal-plated screws drilled into his bones to remake his ribcage. The screws and plates were titanium-based, a non-metallic alloy designed to not weaken the bone structure while it healed. If he pressed in the right places, he could feel the outline of the screws holding the bones and metal cage together. It didn’t hurt, not anymore, but sometimes it ached, as though the scar tissue stretched and pulled and tightened where it should have more give.
“Friday, time?” Tony whispered, his voice echoing oddly across the unfurnished penthouse.
“The time is 4:33 AM. It is Saturday, May 23, 2015.” Friday’s voice echoed, “Sir’s schedule is clear.”
Tony closed his eyes. Of course his schedule was clear. It was a Saturday; he’d not had a date on a Saturday night in god knows how many years; his friends had all ditched him to play superhero at the secret complex he’d helped fund; even his old friend Happy had gone back to California to watch out for Pepper. His only company was a sarcastic, impersonable A.I., his robo-pets, and a former assassin who apparently was doing a good impression of a narcoleptic sleeping beauty.
He whimpered, letting his forehead fall to his knees. Somehow, in trying to save everyone again he’d destroyed everything, disappointed everyone. Sure, he and Bruce had ultimately, accidentally with Thor’s help, created life, but at what cost— at what cost?
His chest ached, and it took Tony a painfully long time to realize the wetness against his face had leaked from his eyes.
“Fuck,” he muttered. “Fuck.”
And then the cool fingers were back, a gentle, comforting graze across his shoulder.
Tony froze, his shoulders tense, before his head shot up, eyes wide with disbelief, to find Barnes kneeling beside him.
“What,” Tony muttered, quickly wiping his eyes. “What are you doing? Did I wake you?”
“No,” Barnes grunted. He looked like he’d been punched in the gut, but at least now his hair looked better, too long and still tangled in knots, but not as dirty.
“Uh. Okay?” Tony shivered, uncomfortable. “You hungry? I was gonna eat.”
“Okay,” the former assassin said, moving to stand.
Tony scrambled to his feet, before putting a good distance between himself and the metal-armed man. He pulled open the fridge, shivering again as the cold air hit his bare chest. Grabbing whatever containers he could find, Stark piled the boxes onto the countertop. “Leftovers okay? This may be the city that never sleeps, but the places open for delivery at 4 AM are not the sort of food you want to eat, trust me.”
Barnes shrugged, the metal arm barely moving. “It’s fine.”
Tony hummed, spooning out plates and popping one in the microwave, trying not to think about the fact that he was shirtless in his kitchen with a former assassin, his scars and chest on full display as he moved. Of all times, of all fucking moments for his house guest to decide to make an appearance, Tony had not expected it to be during his early morning pity party of one.
“Uh,” Tony placed a plate on the counter. “There’s yours. I’m just going to, um, grab a shirt while mine’s heating. Yeah.”
He barely made it around the counter when Barnes caught his wrist between metal fingers.
“Wait,” the taller man muttered. “You… you have scars.”
Tony repressed a shiver. This close, he could almost smell the metal; burnt oil tinged with something else, something not-organic, and he let his eyes roam over the broken plating, cataloging the damage. Friday’s readings were one thing, but seeing it this close, it was something else, entirely.
“Yeah,” Tony finally answered, staring at the place where the arm disappeared behind Barnes’s dark shirt. “Scars.”
“Long story,” Tony moved to pull his wrist from Barnes’s grasp, and the soldier released him easily. “Not really a bedtime story, sorry.”
“Oh,” Barnes’s face fell. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“S’okay,” Tony tried to form a grin, tried to think of something, anything, to say. “I’ll, uh, I’ll grab a shirt.”
He hurried from the kitchen without a backwards glance. In his suite, he dug through his closet at a feverish pace, searching for his favorite band shirt with shaking hands.
“Friday, is he still there?” Tony asked, pulling the shirt over his head. “Please tell me he’s not already gone?”
“Yes he’s still there? Or yes he’s disappeared again?” Tony huffed in annoyance, pulling his fingers through his hair. It was greasier than he’d like; he hadn’t showered last night before falling into bed. “Never mind, I’ll see for myself.”
He made it back into the kitchen in time to hear the microwave ding, but the soldier was gone.
“Friday, you can’t keep covering for him,” Tony grumbled. It’d been four days since Barnes had found him—resting his eyes, he was not crying—in the kitchen. Four days, and not once had he been able to find the soldier since. Every time Friday conveyed the man’s location, by the time he’d arrived, Barnes had already disappeared, and the A.I. was unapologetic.
“My subroutines include the right to privacy, Sir. Or would you like to remove those algorithms as well?”
Tony rubbed his neck. He’d tried to remove the sarcasm module, with limited success. At this rate, the genius was afraid he’d actually created something this time, something more complex than J.A.R.V.I.S. “No, he has the right to privacy. It’s just, he’s sleeping. He barely eats. He won’t talk. He’s not getting better. Can’t you see that, Friday? He’s not getting better.”
“And he hasn’t attacked you again, Sir.”
“Oh,” he said. Tony blinked stupidly. He turned in his chair, spinning in a slow circle as he looked around the workshop. Against the far wall, the Iron Man suit stood, illuminated in pale light. On another workbench were several holographic models of the soldier’s arm, its damaged plates and wires cataloged by bright red, spinning malfunction notices.
He groaned, smacking a palm to his forehead. The safety algorithms. The fucking safety algorithms. He’d programed his new A.I. to recognize and respond to panic attacks, to help talk Tony down from an anxiety-induced freakout like J.A.R.V.I.S. had, including a lock-down component for anyone that might trigger or make an anxiety attack escalate. But he hadn’t realized, never thought that the A.I. would need to apply those to anyone else, would take those patterns and apply it to—
“Friday, you can’t help him hide just because he’s scared to have a panic attack,” Tony exhaled. “For one, it’s not going to make things better, if he doesn’t learn what his panic triggers are.”
The A.I. didn’t respond. Tony rolled his eyes, almost unable to believe he was going to have to argue with a computer program he’d created. He missed J.A.R.V.I.S. He missed his friend, damn it.
“Tell you what,” Tony began, “I’ll make you a deal. Him a deal. Whatever. I’ll put the suitcase suit upstairs, under your control, so if he freaks out again you can stop him. And down in the workshop, you already have the main suit. Can you tell him that?”
“I will relay your message, Sir.”
Tony tapped a finger on the workbench, impatiently waiting for a response. He twitched, spinning the hologram around to study the arm from another angle. Absently, he rubbed at the scar tissue beneath his shirt— the arm didn’t make sense, it was too heavy to be comfortable, but Barnes didn’t seem to walk with a lopsided gait or anything. But that couldn’t be comfortable, couldn’t be—but Barnes had ditched the sling, or at least, he didn’t have it on that night in the kitchen.
“He wishes to know what ‘the catch’ is, Sir.” Friday chimed in.
Tony’s lips curled into a small smile. Of course he did. “He needs to come out of that room at least once a day. Spend at least an hour out of that room, every day. I don’t care what he does, he can do calisthenics in the living room until the furniture arrives, whatever. Show him how to get to the gym, maybe. Just… no more hiding. No more disappearing acts.” He tapped a finger on the workbench. “I mean, come on, Cap or Romanoff are bound to drop by at some point. And then what? You don’t think Romanoff will notice something’s different? She’ll just look at me and know.”
It’d been almost two months since Ultron, more than six weeks since he and Rogers had seen Thor off to Asgard. Before he’d quit the Avengers and drove back to New York. Rhodey called every now and then, more than when he’d been on active duty, but he was busy now cleaning up the mess that was Hydra and taking up the slack Tony had left when he resigned. And Steve. Tony huffed an amused, discouraged sound.
Steve had called, once, looking for Pepper.
Who was he kidding, it wasn’t like Cap was gonna drop by or anything. Whatever friendship they’d managed to forge while fighting through Hydra bases looking for Loki’s fucking scepter, that easy-going teasing had ended with the Ultron project. Ended when Tony’s mess had resulted in a killer robot, in the destruction of a whole goddamn country, and almost in a cataclysmic end for planet Earth.
Maybe Loki as a supreme ruler would have been a better plan, after all.
“Your terms are acceptable, Sir,” Friday suddenly responded, and Tony sat up wearily. “Mr. Winter has agreed. One hour outside of his suite, every day, and no more hiding when Sir tries to locate him.”
“Yay,” Tony muttered, ignoring his A.I.’s new name for the soldier, for now. “Now look alive, Friday. I need research. Leading treatise on coercive persuasion, menticide, torture victims, whatever they’re calling it nowadays. And get me someone who knows New York law on protection for victims of torture or coercive persuasion… let’s just assume the worst, yeah? Criminal, civil, whatever we might need. Keep it quiet, but I want a meeting with the best lawyers in the country on this, and I want it yesterday. Time to bring your new friend home, you know?”
The screens before him flooded to life with images and articles, and Tony thought he could detect a smug-sounding pleasantness in his A.I.’s voice as she rattled off a list of names and agencies.
Even with the new rules, it was almost a week before Tony ran into Barnes again. He’d slept, for once, and woken at a decent time in the morning, only to find the former assassin standing barefoot by the kitchen counter, a pair of kitchen shears clutched tightly in the man’s right hand and his long hair dripping in wet trails down his bare back and shoulders. A towel, forgotten, draped across the seam between his metal arm and chest, and at the very faintest of edges Tony thought he could see red, raised scars stretching outward from the metal framework.
“Don’t call me that,” the taller man snapped. He didn’t sound angry, just tense.
“Okay? What should I call you, then?” Tony fiddled with his coffee mug. “And maybe you could put down the scissors, yeah?”
Barnes looked down at his hand, as though he’d only just realized what he’d held, and placed the sheers on the countertop but didn’t release his grip. “Call me James. James is… it feels safe.”
“James,” Tony agreed. “So, ah, James, why are you holding the kitchen scissors?”
“Hair’s too long. S’got knots in it still.”
Tony blinked, surprised. “Seriously? You can’t use kitchen sheers for that, it will ruin the ends. Hold on, I’ve got a kit around here somewhere. Nat used to cut Barton’s hair, said she learned how at beauty school or something. Which sounds crazy,” Tony frowned, “Yeah that’s probably a lie… but I’ve seen the styling kit she bought him. Just, wait here a second while I grab it, yeah?”
Barnes didn’t acknowledge him as he backpedaled from the room, turning down the hall towards the elevator; he hoped the kit was still in Barton’s bathroom, down one floor. He took the stairs two at a time, breaking into a run the second the fire-door closed behind him. If he fucked this up, if he fucked this up—
“Friday, don’t let him hide,” Tony pleaded, yanking open the door to Barton’s suite. “Please, if he tries to hide back in his bedroom, ask him to stay. I won’t make him, but y’know, ask.”
“I will ask, Sir.”
Tony skidded into Barton’s bathroom, almost wiping out over the blue mess of a rug on the marble floors. “Ugh,” Tony groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Barton brought a fucking bath mat from the Dollar Store into my tower?” He kicked the threadbare rug for good measure, before turning to the cabinets, where he found the nondescript brown leather case he’d been looking for. Tony fingered the material for a moment, offering a silent apology to Natasha as his fingertips glazed over the leather cover, smooth and soft to the touch.
He grabbed the second bag beside it as well, recognizing the logo on the side; if Barton was going to leave Tony’s christmas present at the tower when he disappeared back to his stupid farm, then fuck him, Tony had give it to someone who might appreciate it more.
“Friday, he still there?” Tony skidded into the elevator. He checked his watch; it’d been less than two minutes, two whole goddamn minutes. “Please tell me he’s not hacked everything off with the sheers already?”
“Mr. Winter is still in the kitchen, Sir.”
“Good,” he straightened his shirt, swiping away a drop of sweat from his brow. “Wish me luck.”
He paced back into the kitchen, letting his bare feet slap noisily against the floor so he wouldn’t startle the other man (not that he doubted for a second that Barnes hadn’t heard him, the moment he left the elevator—Natasha once said that Tony walked like an elephant). “I come bearing gifts, James,” Tony said, hoisting the bags onto the counter. “First,” he tapped the leather case. “Better than kitchen sheers. Also I got an electric razor. If you want to trim that hobo beard you got going on?”
“Yes,” Barnes exclaimed, almost sounding excited as he pulled the dark-blue bag closer. He removed the razor; it was one of those newer Norelcos with three alternating heads that contoured to the skin, but with a chia-pet growth like that, Barnes would need something more powerful to start with.
“How do I—Can you—” Barnes flipped the switch in the center, and nothing happened.
“Oh!” Tony said. “I didn’t check to see if it was charged. Here, put it down and I’ll plug it in, show you how the built-in trimmer works too.”
Barnes moved to hand the device to Tony, and the genius backpedaled, shoving his hands in his pockets. The silence stretched uncomfortably, until finally Barnes dropped the razor in the bag.
Tony reached for the bag, shuffling the contents until he found the charger. After showing Barnes how the trimmer worked and what buttons to push, he pointed to the leather kit beside it. “You wanna give it a go with the scissors? I’ll hold the mirror?”
The taller man reached over to unzip the brown leather case. Tony sucked in a breath as Barnes picked up a pair of cutting shears, passing the small scissors between his right and left hand and getting a feel for the way they moved. He had the strangest thought that the former assassin almost seemed nervous, before Barnes pointed to his metal arm with the scissors in his right.
“It’s not exactly… I mean. Can you at least cut the knots out?”
Tony inhaled sharply. He knew his eyes had to be a thousand percent open or something, if he looked as surprised as he felt. With a short nod, he tried to smile. “Sure,” he pointed to a chair by the windows, one of the fold-out ones he’d brought up from the lab. “Sit down and we’ll see what we can do, Shaggy.”
“Who the hell is Shaggy?” Barnes muttered, twisting the scissors until the point-side faced inward and extended his arm out towards Tony.
Stark froze, unable to even bring his hand up; to pretend to take the scissors; to extend his arm at all. He couldn’t, he just couldn’t— it was no use, the thought of taking the scissors from Barnes’s hand, no matter what the reaction—he felt bile rise in his throat, acidic against his tongue. And Barnes stared back, his blue eyes narrowing into thin slits as he stood there, scissors outstretched, waiting.
“Can you—” Tony swallowed. “Can you put them on the counter?”
James’s face fell, and the scissors clattered across the granite surface. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine—” Tony “It’s not you. I have a thing.”
“Whatever. I know I’m the bad guy Stark, you don’t need to pretend.”
Tony picked up the scissors, exhaled. “Barnes—” he grimaced, correcting himself. “James. I don’t mean this to sound selfish. I mean, I’m not as much of an asshole as everyone thinks I am. That’s not to say I’m not an asshole, sometimes, but—” Tony rubbed at his temples. “What I’m trying to say, is that it’s not always about you. And in this case, it really, I mean really, is about me. I don’t like when people hand me things. It’s a—” A tick? A neurosis? What would possibly make sense to a man from the 1940s who’d apparently spent the last seventy years as Hydra’s lap dog? “—It’s a thing. That’s all. Really, it has nothing to do with you. No one hands me things. Not even my girl—my ex-girlfriend.”
Tony grinned suddenly. “Yeah. Oh. So how ‘bout it, Shaggy,” he picked up the scissors. “We gonna do this or what?” He threw a casual glance towards Barnes; the man seemed tense, but he wasn’t running from the room. Not yet, at least. And that was something. Apart from the night they’d had pizza, this was probably the longest he’d been in the same room with the former assassin. “Also, that reminds me. Friday, start a list for our newest resident of the 21st century. Pop culture references. Gotta catch James here up on the last seven decades. Add cartoons to the list. And Cartoon Network. Oh! And Space Ghost Coast to Coast.”
“Shouldn’t have asked, huh?” Barnes said. He grunted as he moved to sit, metal arm whirring as he lifted his forearm to rest against his knee. It looked like the elbow joint didn’t move past ninety degrees, the plates were jammed further up but that shouldn’t affect the way it moved, that looked more like something had—
“Stop lookin’ at it. Stark.”
“Sorry,” Tony grimaced, turning his gaze away. Was there some 1940s high school course that taught them both how to say Tony’s last name as if it was a curse or something? Barnes sounded just like the Captain, his tone dripping with disapproval. When Tony didn’t follow orders. When Tony tried to save the world and accidentally helped create a robot bent on destroying it. He ducked his chin against his chest, uncomfortable.
“It’s fine,” Barnes managed, interrupting Tony’s thoughts. The former soldier sounded almost contrite. “It’s not you—I just—you look at it, like you want—”
“Like I want to take it apart and make it work again? Yeah. Sorry. It’s a thing.”
“Not your fault,” Barnes grimaced. “Just. I’m not ready.”
“Yeah,” Tony wondered how quickly he could make it to the lab, if he took a step back now and turned to the left, it was only about fifteen feet to the elevator doors. He could be in the workshop, pink cheeks and all, in five minutes. Just had to—
“You gonna play barber shop or what?”
Tony hesitated. Oh. Oh. It wasn’t a trust thing, after all. So it was something else, then. Huh.
He cleared his throat. “Right. Barber shop,” he muttered, moving to stand behind Barnes’s tense shoulders. The towel had been draped across the man’s broad back, covering his neck and shoulders with damp blue material. “For the record, I appreciate the faith you have that I know what I’m doing here, and I also apologize because, while I have very steady hands—seriously, have you seen what I make? Very steady hands. But the last time I cut someone’s hair, I definitely got detention for it.”
Barnes chuckled. “S’okay. Don’t think I did much better.”
Tony almost laughed at the Brooklyn accent. “No, not really. You’ve sort of got some lopsided thing going on here, longer on one side than the other. I mean there’s like a three inch difference from the left to the right. Actually, I hear that’s very popular in Europe now.”
“Wouldn’t know. Don’t remember Europe.”
Tony hummed, carefully running a thin comb through dark locks, until it caught against a knotted clump. The hair was clean, but it was a mess. Guess a year of living on the streets after seventy years of deep freeze and Hydra beauty care wrecked havoc on split ends. He caught the knot and surrounding hair in a line with the straight edge, trimming along the length of the comb. “What do you remember, then? You knew my name…”
“Impossible not to learn your name, you are on every fucking newspaper from here to Mexico. Didn’t have to remember shit,” the former assassin muttered without heat.
Tony grinned. “Good! I was afraid I’d lost my touch.” He pulled strands on either side of Barnes’s ears, comparing length. “I’m just gonna try to trim this so it’s somewhat the same length, deal?”
Tony laughed, “God, that was a thing even back then? No bowl cuts, I swear. Though I’m not sure this is going to be much better. Now don’t move, this is actually harder than it looks.”
“Don’t fuck it up, Stark. I know where you sleep.”
“Was that supposed to be a joke? Because I’ll be honest with you, that’s a little terrifying.” Tony let a clump of hair drop from his fingers. “At least wait until you’ve shaved the hobo beard before you make jokes that could be sexual, I’m just saying.”
Barnes snorted. “Sexual? You wish.”
“Not with that hobo beard, I don’t.”
“Promises, promises,” Barnes chuckled.
“Seriously, no laughing,” Tony ran his fingers through the strands, pulling them taunt and teasing out a tangled section. “I almost cut your ear off. And I’m pretty sure that’s not polite.”
“Punk,” Barnes muttered, closing his eyes as Tony trimmed the longer strands around his face.
Cutting hair was not as easy as he thought it would be, Tony realized later. Add his stylist to the list of people Tony should probably tip more, which, frankly, was a long list.
It didn’t look that bad, Tony mused; longer at the top than on the sides and bottom, but still long enough to cover his face, the wisps curling around in waves around his blue eyes as it dried against the soldier’s skin. Maybe he could show Barnes how to use gel or something, pull it back with a slicked up modern look. After cutting out the knots and dead ends and carefully evening out the sides and length the best he could, Tony had shaken the last bits of damp hair from his fingers and declared Barnes’s new hair cut ‘good enough’ until a professional could be brought in.
And to be fair, James’s hair did look better—gone were the long strands of brown that had obscured his eyes, the weighted cover that the taller man had hidden behind. Without the curtains of hair to cover his face, Tony thought those baby blues revealed more than he cared to consider. Barnes hesitated afterwards, as if he didn’t know whether to thank Tony or to punch him, like a deer in the path of a semi.
Like he didn’t know what to make of the billionaire.
Tony had thought they’d gotten somewhere, that the fact that Barnes had sat there for almost an hour, laughing at Tony’s bad jokes and offering small observations and tidbits about the last seventy years, that it meant something. That maybe afterwards he would stick around and Tony could order in pizza, maybe show James how the television worked nowadays, and in color! But no, the second he’d declared the haircut finished and shown Barnes how to use the electric trimmer, the man had nodded once, grabbed the razor in his flesh hand, and disappeared. Just, poof. Gone. Not even a ‘thanks Stark, see you around.’ Nothing.
Tony washed the scissors in the sink, watching the dark hair flow away in the spray. He heard the whir of his floor bots, sweeping away and disposing of what remained of James’s long hair, a few inches left scattered on the penthouse floor.
He waited until he’d refilled his coffee and sat himself in the common room, on the decrepit MIT couch, before he quietly asked his A.I. if James was alright.
“Mr. Winter is within the privacy of his suite, Sir,” was the A.I’s curt reply.
Tony nodded, wondering how long this could go on, before Romanoff figured it out. Before Pepper demanded he show up for a board meeting, get out of his tower, something. He couldn’t keep this a secret forever, Barnes needed real help. “But he is not, ah, upset by the haircut?”
“I do not believe so, Sir.”
Tony huffed a frustrated sound. No matter what he did, his creation didn’t seem inclined to answer him. It was almost as though she liked Barnes better than him, which just wasn’t possible. He tapped his fingers against the cushions, before pulling up his feet and reclining against the armrest, tablet in hand.
It was hours later, when Friday interrupted his research.
“Sir, a Doctor Kathleen Taylor is calling your mobile number. Shall I take a message?”
“No, send it here,” Tony sat up, letting his fingers graze across the surface of his tablet as he opened a new project file. The line clicked with a soft ping, indicating the call had been transferred, and he called out, “Doctor Taylor, thank you calling me.”
A smartly accented woman’s voice sounded against the line, echoing faintly around the living room. “Oh, I hardly think I could not return your call, Mister Stark—” There was the faintest lilt to her voice, that reminded him painfully of J.A.R.V.I.S. “What could a billionaire inventor need with a neuro-psychology researcher at Oxford? Does this have anything to do with whatever happened before you became Iron Man?”
“For once, it’s not about me, Doc.” Tony sighed, adding a hint of flair to his voice. The doctor gave a muffled chuckle, and Tony grinned, continuing, “Listen, I really liked your books, especially the one on cults, but I’m going to need you to sign that NDA before I can tell you anything more.”
“Now I’m curious, Mr. Stark.”
“Yeah, well, be curious enough to sign the NDA.”
There was a hushed gasp, and Tony looked up suddenly, only to see his guest had crept into the living room. Gone was the man’s scraggly beard, replaced by the clean and handsome face of one James Buchanan Barnes, a face Tony had seen so many times in the old black and white photograph in his father’s office, that he knew every line and surface.
Huh, Tony blinked. Didn’t look like the winter soldier any more, now. This guy was fucking hot. That blue shirt, and jeans, and now his clean-shaven look after a few weeks of good food and shelter; it was hard to see anything left of the man Tony had found hiding behind a dumpster. This man, this man looked like, well. Like James. Or Bucky. Or whatever he wanted to call himself. And gorgeous.
Which was probably why took Tony longer than it should have to realize how rapidly the man—James—was breathing now, his chest rising and falling at a painfully fast pace.
“Uh, I’m sorry, but I’ve gotta run. I’ll let you coordinate emailing that NDA with my assistant, Friday.” Tony waved a hand, cutting the line before Doctor Taylor could respond. He moved to stand, but Barnes raised his hands to warn him off.
“Hey. James. You okay?” he asked instead.
“Who?” Barnes managed to say. His breaths sounded almost panicked, with his flesh hand clutching the shirt over his sternum as though he could hold back his heart. “Who was—”
Tony offered a reassuring smile. “Doctor Kathleen Taylor. One of the world-renowned experts on neuropsychology. She’s a research scientist and writes books. At Oxford. In England.”
Barnes sank to his knees, a look of such abject fear on his face that it made Tony nauseated. “You were talkin’ about me,” he whispered.
“Yeah. Or at least, I want to speak with her, once she signed the NDA,” Tony shuffled off the couch, onto the floor. Barnes wasn’t more than five feet away, but it might have as well been five miles, for how far away the guy looked right now. “Know what an NDA is?” he continued, edging his way closer, ignoring for the moment how James’s hands had formed into tight fists. “Its a non-disclosure agreement—means she can’t tell anyone what I ask her about. So everything stays private.”
“Why?” James cried. “Why would you—You think I’m crazy or something?”
“No.” Tony swallowed. This was it, this was motherfucking it. After almost three weeks of walking on eggshells and trying to not fuck this up, he was going to fuck this up. “I don’t think you’re crazy. Doctor Taylor is one of the world’s leading experts on brainwashing and the neuropsychology behind recovery from torture. And if I’m going to get your name cleared, I need evidence. I need an expert who can testify. I need someone respectable. Not me. Not your biased 1940s buddy Spangles. Someone with bona fides.”
“Stark,” James let his head hang, small tremors running through his shoulders. “You know why I came here?”
“I’m going to go out on a limb here, and guess it isn’t because of my charming personality.” James’s shoulders shook again; and Tony bit his tongue, hard, before he realized that Barnes was actually laughing. “I”m sorry. That?” Stark protested. “That wasn’t actually a joke, that time.”
“I came here, because I thought you’d do the right thing. Hand me over to the government. Hell, kill me yourself, when I—when I— you know—And they’re still lookin’ for me, I know. Not—Not Stevie and his friend. Them. I was just so tired. So tired.”
“I know,” Tony huffed. “But I think you’ve suffered enough, and this whole self-isolation thing isn’t healthy.”
“Says you, but I don’t see you leavin’ the tower much.” James huffed.
Tony gave a small smile, scooting himself closer. Close enough to bump his shoulder against Barnes’s non-metallic one. “Yeah. I’ve kinda been a recluse. Have this secret project I’ve been working on.”
“Oh?” James muttered. He almost sounded disappointed.
“Yeah. I kinda suck at it, but I think I’m supposed to be helping this guy who was kidnapped by some really big assholes adjust to the twenty-first century.” Tony sucked in a sharp breath. His heart felt like a goddamn jackhammer against his sternum. “Wanna help?”
This time, Barnes did chuckle, and Tony grinned in relief as the former assassin elbowed him gently in the ribs. “Okay.”
“Now,” Tony pushed himself up, “I’m getting off this floor. Thank fuck the new furniture comes this week, because my knees are too old for this shit. And we’re ordering takeaway. First lesson in this brave new world. Anything you want to order can be delivered to your doorstep, at a price. Even caviar and sushi.”
“Sushi? What’s that?”
“Oh, James,” Tony tsked, quirking an eyebrow. “We have a lot of work to do.”
It was different, the days that followed the haircut incident. Barnes ventured out of his room more, would spend his time watching television on the screen finally delivered along with the rest of the penthouse’s new furniture, a few days later.
The first time Tony strolled in to find James sprawled out across the white leather couch, his arms and legs akimbo, and laughing as Friday played cartoon after cartoon and movie after movie for him? Well, Tony’d probably seen prettier sights, but at the moment he couldn’t just remember any. And the answering smile when he’d nudged Barnes’s knee and told him to budge over—because if the guy was going to watch cartoons, Tony had to introduce him to the Smurfs and Scooby Doo—yeah, that didn’t hurt, either.
Tony tried to spend at least a portion of his day working from the living room couch or at the kitchen table. He even took a few conference calls from the pristine white office he never used on the penthouse floor. Anything he could do to sort of remind the other guy that he existed not within a vacuum, but instead inside a very complex world with moving pieces and parts all around. Anything he could do to show Barnes that he couldn’t hide away forever.
Pepper called him, a few days after the haircut. Wanted him to come out to California for a meeting. It was all Tony could do to convince her that it would be better that he teleconferenced. And all he could do to keep her from jumping on the next plane to New York to see if Tony was alright.
And Steve, he hadn’t called, but Tony got the feeling that Friday might be slipping Vision some extra tidbits to keep the Avengers at bay. For one, he got a nice email from Rogers thanking him for the pizzas for the new SHIELD recruits a few nights ago, and he did no such goddamn thing as buy pizza for a bunch of spooks in training. But maybe it was good, to butter up those who might later be hunting him or Barnes, if things didn’t go well.
And that was the tricky part. He’d asked again the morning after the haircut, about contacting Steve. Barnes had gone rigid, begged Tony not to call him, not yet. There was that look in his eye that frightened Tony, fear and an overwhelming sadness that he recognized all too well. It was one thing to think you might be a disappointment; it was entirely different to know for sure.
Which was a goddamn pisser.
Tony fiddled with the tablet, touching the names and dates with reverence. Even now, he could hear Barnes’s quiet laughter in the other room. The man laughed like he was ashamed of the sound, stuffing it down and wrapping it around his very center like a devout Catholic sneezing in church. Like finding joy was a crime.
It was as though they’d reached a stalemate. Sometimes, Barnes was a hot mess, like when Tony came into the kitchen a few days ago to find Barnes arguing with Friday about how to cook an egg; apparently, the genius had been too quiet for once, and had managed to startle the former soldier—so badly that Barnes had grabbed the edge of the pan with his metal hand and launched it at the wall behind Tony’s head. And even though they’d laughed that off—once Tony realized James hadn’t hurt himself grabbing the hot pan, and pointed out that the eggs had missed his head by a mile (okay, inches, if that)—it showed where the edges existed. Where Barnes ended and the Winter Soldier began, an entity wrapped together in one gorgeous, stubborn package.
Then there were moments when James seemed so normal, so well adjusted considering he’d either been asleep, brainwashed, or on the run for the last seventy five years. Like when Barnes had wandered down to Tony’s lab and spent the entire afternoon playing fetch with Dum-E. Or even just the other morning, when Barnes had walked out in his boxers and t-shirt, hair a scrambled mess, clearly having just woken up. And damn if Tony’s heart didn’t jump, at seeing the man clearly so comfortable and at home in the tower, like he almost belonged there; like he fit in, broken pieces and scars and all. And for a moment, he’d think maybe it would be alright. Maybe things would get better.
And then later that night, Tony found him unresponsive and with big fat crocodile tears dripping down his pale cheeks, before Friday ordered him out. Before his goddamn A.I. used protocols he’d installed for himself to talk James back from the edge of beyond.
But one thing was becoming clear. The former assassin, hidden away in Tony’s tower like a damsel in distress, wasn’t getting better.
Somehow, the act of cutting Barnes free from the mess of hair and that scraggly facial overgrowth had triggered a whole new set of memories for the former assassin. Things that he shouldn’t remember. Things that he couldn’t remember but that gnawed at him, like a rat at a corpse. And god, when Tony just sat to think about it, it was so fucking unfair, so goddamn wrong, that Barnes should remember all these things about how Hydra used him, but nothing about who he was before. That they should have managed to so completely erase his memories of himself, his family, his friends; replacing them with fear and word associations too concerning to actually try again (his throat had just finally stopped sporting the latticework of bruises from a few weeks ago, after all).
It was fucking unfair, that’s what. And that was before the nightmares started.
The first night it happened, Tony had thought it had been a fluke, a one-time thing, when Friday had called him up from the workshop. He’d found Barnes huddled in a corner, talking in Russian of all things. Listing names. Names and dates. And by the time Tony had managed to snap him out of it (the suitcase nearby, he’s dumb but not that dumb), managed to get James to look him in the eye and repeat the date and that he was safe, in the tower, well….
James didn’t remember any of it, afterwards. He didn’t remember waking up; he didn’t remember the names he had recited; he didn’t remember Tony coming into his room, up until the moment he really looked at the engineer.
That probably wasn’t a good sign.
But Tony remembered. And he’d looked up the names, cross-referenced the list against the data Natasha had released onto the internet. Pulled up the list that wikileaks had compiled from the records, the work of hundreds digging into files of scanned paper documents and data dumped online, images that even the best AIs couldn’t crawl. The dates and names that James recited had perfectly matched the Winter Soldier’s kill list, for a period of time early in his so-called career. Those he’d taken out in the 1950s, some of the first hits by the Soldier as the Soviet’s puppet-assassin. And the list that James had recited from that era? Longer than the lists on the internet. Much longer.
Tony didn’t sleep much, that night. Especially not after finding his parents’ names on wikileaks.
He exhaled, switching through browsing windows on the tablet screen until the smiling, sympathetic mugshot and bio appeared. He tucked the tablet under his arm as he stood, careful to conceal its contents as he paced into the living room. “Friday, pause the movie for a sec, will ya?”
The screen froze, and James turned his attention towards Stark, instead. “I was watchin’ that, Tony,” he said, the faintest smirk winding across the guy’s face.
Tony smiled in return. More and more, the charm and character that James’s file had mentioned seemed to be returning, as the younger man settled back into patterns that both were and weren’t him. It seemed to Tony as though he was watching the man try on different hats, judging to see which ones fit and which ones were too small or too tight before moving onto the next one.
“We need to chat, buddy,” Tony sat on the couch, still holding the tablet close.
Barnes sat up, pulling his feet to the floor. “About what? If it’s that dream thing again, I already told you, I don’t remember—”
“It’s not that,” Tony interrupted. “Well. Not really.”
The former assassin moved to stand. “Look, I already told you, I’m not ready to see him yet. It doesn’t feel right. Not when I can’t remember nothin’ and— Not when he’s just a face, and the name makes me feel sick—”
“I know,” Tony hurried his pace, moving to follow as James paced towards the kitchen. “I’m not calling Spangles. But I think we need help. Need someone more, you know. Professional.”
James grunted. He poured himself a glass of water, took a sip, and leveled a cold glare over the glass in Tony’s direction. “You already made some calls, didn’t you.”
Tony rubbed his forehead, perching on a barstool opposite from Barnes. He placed his tablet on the bar, face up. “Might’ve. Might’ve donated a lot to a very good charity organization to set this up, too. This guy—”
“James,” Tony huffed, “You can’t keep on like this. You won’t even let me look at your arm—”
“Because there’s nothing to look at, goddamn, you Starks are always—”
“When it’s clear it hurts you—”
“It does not!” Barnes spat. “It’s fine—”
“I mean for fuck sake, you electrocuted yourself last week trying to shower with it—”
“So what—?” James shouted, his shoulders heaving in anger as he slammed his glass down, hard, against the counter. The resounding crash echoed against the bare walls, shards of glass and droplets of water scattered across the granite surface then tinkling in a rhythmic sound across the tile floors. He froze, wide blue eyes darting impossibly in all direction before settling on Tony’s shocked visage.
“Goddamn it,” Tony sighed, rubbing his forehead.
“Sorry,” Barnes whispered.
“Are you even wearing socks? You know what. Of course you aren’t. Don’t move.” Tony puttered off with quick steps, calling for Friday to deploy the sweeper bots as he went. He returned moments later with a pair of flip flops in hand and loafers on his feet. “Put those on, then step back. Bots are coming.” Tony mumbled. “You bleeding?”
Barnes extended his right hand; in the center of his palm was a gash, small enough to avoid stitches but only just. Tony exhaled, again, rolling his eyes, before he reached for the first aid kit above the stove.
“Sit,” he ordered, pointing towards the dining room table.
James sat, and Tony pulled out an alcohol wipe and three butterfly strips. It was short work; the cut was deep but clear, a clean slice through the outermost skin. Three strips and a quick covering of gauze and tape, and it was done.
But instead of releasing his hand, Tony curled his fingers around the back of James’s hand, across his wrist. His thumb stroked a line down the taller man’s pulse point. Barnes’s arm was like meat on a stick, muscle and firm lines across his forearm and bicep, even without stepping a foot in the gym, but the skin beneath his thumb, the inside of his wrist, was smooth and almost cool to the touch.
“Tony,” Barnes mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s just a glass,” Tony squeezed his wrist.
“I mean about— I’m sorry I lost my temper. It’s not right. You’ve done a lot for me, let me stay here. Got me these clothes…” Barnes thumbed at his shirt with his metal hand. “I know I’m not worth it—”
“No,” Tony denied, shaking his head.
“Come on,” Barnes rolled his eyes. “You may be a genius, jackass, but it doesn’t take one to know what I’ve done. There’s a list on wikipedia, even.” He pulled his hand free, curling in on himself. “I— I read it—I know about—I—If you think—If you think it will help, I’ll meet with someone. Whoever you want.”
Tony slouched lower in his seat, fiddling with the remnants of the bandages. Well, shit. He’d forgotten he’d shown James how to use the internet last week, didn’t think it’d take him so little time to cotton on to how google worked.
“I’m sorry—” Barnes said again, and this time Tony didn’t think he was talking about the glass.
Tony looked towards the windows, squeezing James’s wrist again. Gray clouds hung heavy against the skyline, with dark patches of rain moving in the distance over the Hudson. “It would also help with evidence, to clear your name, you know,” he said.
Barnes shivered. “What if I don’t care about that.”
“Not an option.”
“Some things aren’t forgivable, Stark.”
Tony narrowed his eyes. “What happened to you, what they made you do, that wasn’t your fault, James. That wasn’t your fault. And I don’t care what I have to do or who I have to pay, over my dead body will they prosecute you for it.”
Barnes inhaled sharply, looking away.
Tony waited, letting the silence stretch as James seemed to shake and shuffle free from something, an invisible weight that only he could see. He wanted so badly to reach out, to pull the man’s shoulder against his. Take the taller man in his arms. But he couldn’t. He wouldn’t. For one thing, whatever this strange attraction was, it was probably some byproduct of the fact that Tony hadn’t left the tower but a few times in the weeks since he’d found James hiding beside a dumpster.
And Barnes, with his only company being a slightly less-than-operational A.I. with an overprotective streak and wrecked sarcasm subroutines; a few robots he treated like glorified dogs; and a fucked up, formerly alcoholic and currently reclusive billionaire who had almost destroyed the world, again, only a few months ago, well… Tony bit his cheek. Not exactly good company for recovering from severely traumatic experiences and memories.
But he’d sit here, waiting. Watching as Barnes let his head fall forward and pinched the bridge of his nose, like the very thought that Tony would seek forgiveness for his actions was beyond comprehension. As the former Soviet operative mumbled something quietly in Russian, something that sounded self-depreciating but was too hushed for him to make out. As James cradled his less-functional arm against his chest, careful to avoid scraping the plates and protruding wires.
And when James looked at him, truly looked at him, those red-rimmed blue eyes searching for something, permission or hatred or acceptance, he couldn’t guess. But he must have found whatever he was looking for, because in the next moment, James grinned, and teased back with a cocky lilt to his voice, “Jesus, Stark. Don’t get all morbid on me, punk. I said I’d see the guy.”
“Good,” Tony grinned. “Because he’ll be here in a few minute. I’m going to pick him up from the lobby now, before you can change your mind.”
The sound of James cursing his family name was music to his ears, as the elevator closed behind him.
“What the actual fuck are you wearing?” Tony squinted, shoving the welding mask up. “I thought Friday ordered you clothes.”
“She did. These are clothes.”
“She did not,” Tony protested, sliding out from beneath the workbench. “You can’t wear a wife-beater anymore, this is 2015! Friday! Get him some band t-shirts, something in black or dark blue. Or some of those soft v-necks from Armani.” He stood, and reached out to finger the thin white material hanging from Barnes’s torso. “Seriously, this is like see-through. Did you buy this at Walmart? That is not on the approved vendor list.”
“Sir instructed me to make Mr. Winter comfortable, and Mr. Winter provided specifications for what clothing would comfort him,” the A.I. retorted.
Tony shook a wrench at the ceiling. “See if I upgrade you, you just like him more than me.”
“Sir makes that so difficult,” Friday deadpanned.
Tony glared, then spun on a laughing James Barnes. “You aren’t helping, you know that!”
“Who said I was tryin’ to help?” Barnes laughed, gasping as he wiped his eyes. “And you’re one to talk, your shirt has grease all over it.”
“My shirt is Armani.”
“I dunno what that means, but I think it’s more like ‘Grease-mani’ now.”
“Grease-mani?” Tony tried to hold onto his glare, but felt the edge of his lip quirking upward. “You suck at puns, James.”
“Yeah, yeah,” James grinned, letting himself sink into the couch; Tony’d moved the sofa from MIT down to the workshop when the furniture arrived.
Tony dropped his wrench onto the workbench, and pulled off the welding mask off his head, sinking into the space besides Barnes. He ran a hand through his hair, pulling at the strands that caught as his fingers threaded against his scalp. He was sweaty, tired; his arms ached from welding. “So?”
“So?” James repeated.
Tony rolled his eyes, reaching out to poke the other man’s shoulder. “How was it? Spill.”
“I thought therapy was supposed to be confidential?” Barnes raised an eyebrow.
“You’re right,” Tony winced, raising his hands in surrender. Shit, shit, shit. He’d fucked up, it’d only been a week since he’d gotten James to agree to speak with someone, it was too soon. “I’m sorry. I won’t ask.”
James grinned, surprising Stark as he bumped his knee against Tony’s leg. “S’okay. I don’t actually mind. He, um, he’s going to email you. Actually.”
“Me?” Tony’s eyebrows shot up. “Why?”
“Wants me to work on something. Exposure therapy or something.”
Tony blinked. “What?”
“You gotta basically stop calling him Spangles,” Barnes shrugged. “Start talkin’ normal about him. He talked a lot about—he said his name today and nothing happened. But it feels weird still, you know? Like I’m expecting something to happen when I say his name.”
Tony stifled a laugh. “He’s not Voldemort.”
“There you go again, being an ass and making references I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” Tony grinned.
“No you’re not.”
“No, I’m really not. Friday, add Harry Potter to the list for James.” He shoved Barnes’s knee with his own. “Happy now?”
“Yes.” Barnes rolled his eyes; Tony noticed absently that he was fiddling with the exposed wiring on his metal arm, moving the broken plate back and forth in its joint. “Anyway, he said he’s going to email you, about maybe getting me out more.”
Tony nodded, already thinking about how to arrange an outing. He’d need to alert his attorney and the attorney he’d hired for Barnes, in case anyone recognized them. They’d probably need to tell Steve and the others before then. It wouldn’t be good if he recognized Tony and his new friend from some late night celebrity gossip show and they’d not told him yet. Maybe work on a disguise for the former assassin, gel his hair back. Sunglasses. The whole nine yards.
“Also he wants me to start training again. Get into the gym,” James gestured at his arm. “See what this thing can do, you know?”
Tony smiled reassuringly. “Asher’s good, isn’t he?”
“Yeah. He said—He almost makes me—” James sighed. “I’m starting to believe him. That it wasn’t my fault. That it’s really over. That I’m not gonna go back there; no one’s gonna grab me and try to reset my brain again. And that scares me. You know?”
“Yeah.” Tony swallowed. His fingers stroke at the edges of the scar tissue, the lines that peaked out just above the collar of his shirt. “Like you can start moving on now, but what if everyone else didn’t get that memo.”
“Exactly.” Barnes leaned into Tony, his metal shoulder resting against the engineer’s side.
Tony pulled at a seam on his jeans; he’d nicked the thigh against a sharp edge earlier, cutting the material in a thin line, and the strings poked out, white against the dark blue denim material. It helped, sometimes, to feel the smooth edges of his clothing against his skin; the way the fabric hung in the right places and how smooth the material was against his scars, even when his shirt was sweat-soaked and covered in grease and grime. He’d always been a tactile person, but now, with the pink, raised flesh of his scar across his chest, everything felt that much more sensitive.
Which was ridiculous, really, because his torso was still numb in places from surgery, the nerves not yet healed over from the reconstruction process. And it was hard to breath, sometimes, when he looked in the mirror and didn’t see that brilliant blue light, to remind him that he was alive. To have to remember to breath to prove he was still here, still in one piece.
Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever left Afghanistan, or if the Tony Stark who returned was something else, someone else entirely. It made sense, he mused, why Barnes had changed his name, wanted to be called something new, something different than the nickname and man he couldn’t recall.
“Tony?” Barnes grunted.
Tony hummed in response, glancing sideways. This close, James’s blue eyes were fierce, speculative. As though he were calculating the perfect trajectory for launching an object at Tony’s head.
“Can you fix my arm?” James asked instead, a moment before his eyes widened as though he hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
Tony blinked owlishly. “Are you sure?”
Barnes grinned suddenly, relieved. “Yeah. I’m sure. I’m actually sure."
“Did you see that!” Barnes shouted, practically lifting from the sofa as he threw popcorn towards the television as U eagerly rushed over with a small broom and dustpan. “That’s not in the rules! Foul! Come on ref, are you blind?!”
Tony removed the screw driver from his mouth. “Calm down, it’s just an exhibition game for training. Not even the real season yet. And besides, how do you even know the rules. I didn’t think they had football when you were growing up.”
James blinked, surprised at himself. “You know, I don’t remember. But I do know the rules, “ he protested, almost pulling his arm out of Tony’s grasp before he restrained himself. “And I think I used to play touch games at recess.”
“Recess,” Tony mimicked. “God, who even says that. James, you sound like an old fart.”
“What do they say now, if they don’t call it recess?”
“I dunno, but it’s not recess. It’s playtime or playground time, or some shit like that. How would I know, do I look like I have kids?”
James pointed at U, currently swinging the broom back and forth but not making much headway in collecting the discarded popcorn kernels.
“Okay, in my defense, I was drunk when I made them, and that’s totally different.”
“Uh huh,” Barnes smirked. “Bet there’s a lotta kids whose parents would say the same.”
Tony twisted a panel around, taking care not to pinch the wiring; it’d taken some trial and error, but they’d finally figured out that the best way for Tony to work on James’s arm was on their couch (and yes, thank you very much, it was theirs, now; it practically had the imprints of their asses in the cushions, they’d sat on it so much recently). From the comfort of the ridiculously worn cushions, with sports or lighthearted comedies or whatever else Friday deemed appropriate playing on the screen, James almost seemed relaxed.
His shoulders were so tight that Tony was afraid he’d accidentally injure himself somehow, pulling a muscle or something. But he didn’t complain, and he didn’t pull away.
Somehow, the wires and edges had been hard-crossed into Barnes’s nervous system, in a synthetic interaction that was beyond anything Tony had ever seen or read about. He’d scrapped his plans to replace the arm pretty quickly, once he’d realized that detaching it would probably put James into shock from the pain alone. That the metal was constantly static-charged enough on a basic level to sense touch and pressure, was amazing in of itself. It would revolutionize the entire history of synthetic and artificial limbs, far beyond the tech that existed already, even in comparison to his suit.
But, it meant that a lot of the work in repairing the arm was very, very delicate. The wrong twist or move of a wire had left Barnes wincing in pain and Tony crying out his apologies.
Turned out, there was a reason Barnes had been hesitant to let Tony work on the arm.
The more time they spent on the couch, with Tony clamping a screw driver or flashlight between his teeth while he worked, the more James had started to remember. And would tell Tony, as he remembered. The time when his arm had been all but destroyed, and they had to remove it—how it didn’t hurt, in the field, when it had been damaged, but how when they started working on it, his whole body had felt like it was on fire. The time when one of his handers—he didn’t know which one, they were a blur of names and faces and eras that didn’t add up—tried to remove it, so they could replicate it, but couldn’t get the metal bits to release.
The thought made the inventor nauseated, that someone could experiment on another person like this, with what must have been unbearable pain, for so many years. Decades, even. It made waking up screaming during surgery in Afghanistan seem almost pleasant, in comparison.
“So you played football?” Tony asked, anything to drive away the thoughts in his brain. “What else don’t I know? You have a letter jacket or something?”
“Doubt it,” Barnes grunted. “It was the Depression, Tony.”
“Ah. The Depression. No letter jackets. Got it.” Stark gently placed the chip, before reaching for the soldering iron resting on the back of the couch. “Two quick connections, then this part’s done, okay?”
“Yeah,” James said, stuffing another handful of popcorn in his mouth. “How do these guys move with all that padding?”
Tony made the first connection, sticking the tips of his fingers in his mouth afterwards to cool the singed skin on his index finger. “I dunno. Iron Man suit has lots of armor, still can move.”
“Yeah, but that’s different. You made it to move like you move. They’re wearing helmets and pads and stuff that don’t move with them.”
“What’d you play in, a leather helmet?” Tony squinted at the last connection, holding the wire in place.
“You’re shittin’ me, you didn’t really.”
“We really, really did.” Barnes insisted.
“You’re just making that up to mess with me, you don’t actually remember that.” Tony argued, closing the panel as he sealed up the joint, letting the metal fall into place. He pulled on Bucky’s metal hand to gently extend the arm outward, straightening the elbow, before curling it inward again. “Well, next time Steve gives me shit about safety, I’m going to remind him that apparently he’s the asshole who played football in a leather helmet.”
Barnes laughed, squeezing Tony’s hand in his metal one. Tony moved to drop Barnes’s hand, but the soldier wrapped his metal fingers gently around Tony’s wrist instead.
“You’re right. I don’t remember,” Barnes confirmed; his fingers encircled Stark’s forearm, then slowly opened one at a time, before closing again. “But I bet I woulda. Played football in a leather helmet.”
Tony raised an eyebrow in James’s direction. “Why the long face, buddy? You gonna tell me you just remembered playing the recorder or something?”
James shook his head. His hair had grown some, longer now but still as silky smooth as the day Tony had helped him trim it, without the knots and dead ends. He’d tied it back into a low bun at the base of his skull, with bits and pieces too short to tie up spilling around his face. He looked good, really good. A few weeks of therapy, his arm panels and wiring finally repaired, and thankfully Friday had convinced him that modern clothing required sleeves, and he almost looked like a real person again.
Tony looked away, tried to ignore how his skin tingled in Barnes’s grasp. How his body responded to that deep voice, and the metallic fingers still encircling his wrist, opening and closing in patterned succession like James had decided to play the piano against his pulse point.
“Tony?” Barnes said suddenly.
Stark glanced up, to see the remnants of a news broadcast. The screen had been muted, probably Friday’s doing, but everyone was dancing and covered in rainbows from head to toe. “Yeah?” he managed to say.
“If I ever doubt that I’m really in 2015, just remind me about gay marriage being legal, okay?”
Barnes dropped his arm, and Tony pulled his wrist inward, to cradle it against his sternum. “Okay,” he agreed.
And there it was.
Tony’s stomach dropped. He closed his eyes, letting his fear and shame and anger ride, feeling his face flush with warmth. Suddenly he had a name for these emotions, a name and a feeling, and damned if it didn’t hurt. He had a crush. A crush on a goddamn super soldier former assassin from the 1940s whose best friend had been the morally upstanding and perfect Captain fuckin’ America. And Barnes, if his strange expression as he watched the revelers dance on stage in the slinkiest of rainbow-patterned thongs, he was probably every bit as into women as his file had said.
“Yeah, I’m going to hit the hay,” Tony said suddenly, moving to stand. “Lock up when you go, okay?”
“Tony?” James looked away from the screen; and Tony felt bile rise in his throat, as Barnes looked over, confused blue eyes; worried.
“I”m good. Just tired. Didn’t sleep. You know.” He backpedaled out of the workshop, so quickly that he almost fell over Dum-E as the bot scooted over to fist bump him goodnight. “Yeah. So. See you tomorrow.”
“Night, Tony,” James’s voice echoed against the metal walls as the elevator doors slide closed.
And Tony’s knees gave way.
“Tony!” Barnes pounded on the door to the workshop “I know you’re in there!”
Tony cursed, from where he was hiding underneath his workbench. If he stood up, Barnes would see him. He couldn’t even crawl away undetected, either; the desk ended on one side and on the other it was a direct view to the glass doors. He huffed, letting his head fall to his knees. It had only taken two days for Barnes to figure out that Tony was avoiding him, which frankly impressed the genius more than it probably should; it usually took everyone else a week to figure it out, to determine that Tony wasn’t actually working on some super secret and time sensitive project. Pepper, her record had been three days, and that might have been because she needed his signature on something.
Friday probably helped James too, the traitor.
He bit his lip, and squared his shoulders. “You might as well let him in,” he conceded, clambering out from beneath the workbench in time to see the way Barnes rushed into the lab, frantically searching. And then, the moment Barnes saw him, his blue eyes comically wide, Tony thought he might as well sit down again, anyway, before he fainted or something stupid like that.
He let himself fall heavily into his chair, and spun in a lazy circle, shrugging nonchalantly. “What’s up Buttercup?”
“Why are you mad at me,” Barnes’s face crumpled. “What’d I do?”
“What?!” Tony stopped mid spin. “Why would—I’m not mad at you!”
“Then why are you avoiding me?” James demanded.
As if Tony hadn’t felt like shit already, the devastated look on Barnes’s face certainly didn’t help. “I was just— I was busy, that’s all. I’m not mad.” Because fuck if he was going to tell Barnes that every time he flexed his arms in that v-neck, it did things to Tony that he really’d rather it didn’t. “Just a project for Pepper.”
Barnes stared skeptically at him, and Tony really wished J.A.R.V.I.S. was around; his former A.I. would have flashed the screens with whatever project Tony had last completed, feigned an incoming call from Pepper, anything to help out his friend from this sticky situation. But fucking Friday, nothing. So much for making his own friends.
“If you’re sure you’re not mad…” James began.
“Nope. Not mad.”
“Okay. Hey, listen, I’ll get us some pizzas and you can show me that movie you were talking about. Star Battles.”
“Star Wars,” Tony grinned despite himself. “Star Wars. Jesus H. Christ.”
Barnes grinned back. “How about you go shower and meet me upstairs? No offense, but in the words of someone I know, you stink and even I have some standards.”
“Ha fucking ha,” Tony sighed. He rubbed a palm down his face. Maybe he did need a shower. A nice, long, cold shower, without any thoughts of metal arms and blue eyes. “Okay, okay. You win. I’ll meet you upstairs.”
Barnes grinned again, and dipped his head in acknowledgement as he disappeared back into the elevator.
Tony huffed. “Friday, if I say I’m on lock down, that means lock down. You’re not supposed to tell people where I am, when I’m on lock down.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir, but that conflicts with my protocols.”
“I’m going to have a very serious look at these protocols later,” Tony stood, grabbing his mobile and favorite coffee mug as he maneuvered through the room. “Shut everything down, Fri.”
“Gladly, Sir. And may I say, Sir, I do hope you enjoy your date.”
Tony groaned, letting his head fall into his palms. “Not you too.”
“I have no idea what you are implying, Sir.”
Tony didn’t bother responding as he stepped inside his suite, stripping off his grease-stained clothes as he walked towards the shower. Friday had already geared up the jets, water cascading from three sides as he stepped into the spray. It was like a gentle massage in the rain, as water fell from above and shot out in soothing streams against his shoulders and lower back. He groaned, letting his frustrations wash away. Maybe Barnes was right, maybe he really did need a shower after all. Plus, pizza and a movie couldn’t be that bad either, could it? It’s not like he couldn’t control himself, he was a big boy. He’d get through it. Get over this stupid infatuation, soon enough. It wasn’t a big deal, not really.
Fifteen minutes later, and Tony scrubbed his hair dry as he picked through his wardrobe for something that said more of just bros than trying too hard. He’d settled for another of his favorite t-shirts, this one worn and soft against his chest, and casual track pants that hugged his ass in the right places but were more than comfortable for sitting around. With bare feet he padded out into the living room.
Tony’s stomach flopped, as he scanned the room. The T.V. was on, and a beer rested on the coffee table without a coaster, but Barnes wasn’t there. “Friday, where’s James?”
“Mr. Winter left the tower approximately forty-five minutes ago, Sir.”
Tony’s breath caught in his throat. “What? He—he left—?”
“Mr. Winter has ordered take-away from a restaurant near Eight Avenue, and 31st street, Sir.”
Tony exhaled, relieved. Barnes had just stepped outside— stepped outside, into New York City. “Why would he not just order in, Fri?”
“Mr. Winter read the reviews of this establishment, Sir.” Friday’s voice had an edge to it that Tony didn’t like.
“Okay, okay,” Tony shook off the uneasy feeling in his gut, grabbed himself a beer. “It’s good he has opinions, is developing confidence. I just, it makes me worry. You know that Dr. Asher him to make short trips first. To the park or the roof or out of the city, less human interaction.” He took a swig of his beer. “Whatever, he’s a big boy. What’s the place he ordered from, the best pizza in the city or something?”
“I believe the reviews claim their pizza is most similar to the style known as ‘Brooklyn’ Sir.”
Tony rolled his eyes. Brooklyn pizza, all slices in New York tasted like Brooklyn slices now. “Did you at least tell him what I liked?”
“Of course, Sir.”
Tony fiddled with his phone for a few minutes, sending an email to Pepper about the Maria Stark Foundation’s most recent donation to the Bellevue/NYU Program and the NCTTP, before he stood, pacing the room. It’d been almost an hour, now. The address was at most a fifteen minute walk from the tower. But he was being ridiculous, right? Barnes was formerly the Winter Soldier, for crying out loud, he’d been trained like Natasha; had probably as many or more kills than she did. It wasn’t likely that some mugger was going to get the jump on him. Hell, who knows how long the guy had survived on the streets of the city before he gathered up the courage to make his way to Stark Tower.
But still, he’d wished Barnes had told him. Had maybe taken a cell phone with him, something, so Tony could check in on him. He absolutely was not worried about him. That would be asinine.
“Friday,” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. “Humor me. Find Barnes on whatever security feed you can, I wanna see him on his walk back.”
The A.I. beeped in compliance, but an image on the screen failed to materialize. As the seconds ticked onward, Tony pulled out his phone. There must be something wrong with Friday’s code, J.A.R.V.I.S. never took this long to find anyone, hacking into the metropolitan’s cameras or not.
“Sir…” Friday hesitated.
“Don’t tell me a fucking super soldier got lost walking ten blocks,” Tony grinned, “Oh man I’m never gonna let him live this down.”
“It is not that, Sir. I cannot find him on any of the security feeds within my control.”
“What?” Tony snapped, dropping his beer. He ignored the bottle as it rolled, spilling across the floor. “What about the ones you don’t control? Is there any recorded footage nearby?”
Tony swore, heading towards the elevators. “Prep a suit. Keep looking, Friday. I want to know where he is and I want it yesterday.”
“Sir, the tracker you placed within the arm—“ Friday chimed in moments later, pausing as the elevator doors opened. “It’s moving, Sir. Too fast for Mr. Winter to be walking.”
“How fast?” A suit stood waiting outside the elevator doors, and Tony stepped inside, holding his head high as helmet snapped in place. “Gimme a visual.”
The internal screen lit up, displaying a map with a small moving blue dot, nearing the Canadian border. “By my calculations and based on the speed at which he is traveling,” Friday chimed in, “Mr. Winter is in a fast moving aerial vehicle, either a fighter jet or an equivalently rated plane.”
Bile rose in his throat, as he choked back a scream. “He’s— He’s—”
“Sir, I’ve located security footage near the restaurant,” Friday interrupted, displaying a grainy image inside the helmet of four figures surrounding, surprising a man in a hoodie near Seventh Avenue. The man fell, hard, twitching as though he’d been electrocuted, and his left sleeve rode up, a flash of silver and metal.
“Who—” Tony demanded, “Run facial recognition, compare to known SHIELD aliases and those we believe are Hydra now, who—”
“Already confirmed, Sir. The facial data points of two of the perpetrators match those of two known Hydra agents, one of which is formerly of SHIELD, with 98.7 and 99.1 percent certainty. I am calculating a trajectory for the plane. Processing.”
Tony moaned, hitting the release on the suit and stumbling to his knees. “Hydra…”
“The plane’s current trajectory will take it directly over northern Siberia, Sir. This location matches the geographical location of an unknown Hydra outpost suspected by Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff based on radio traffic last month, approximately—”
“Mute,” Tony whispered, ignoring the A.I. as she threw up screens showing the plane’s projected flight path. He stumbled to his knees, stood again, his steps faltering, until he fell forward, onto the sofa. With trembling fingers he pulled out his mobile phone, twitching through his contacts. Two rings, and a cheerful voice answered.
“Steve,” Tony choked out. “Steve, I’m so sorry.”
It only took the Avengers half an hour to scramble a quinjet and arrive on Tony’s doorstep.
He tried to smile, seeing the friends he hadn’t spoke to in months, but one look at Steve’s face… One look was enough. The fair-haired man waved him aboard the jet without a word, before disappearing back in the cockpit with Nat.
Tony sighed, clambering up the ramp, his armored boots clanking against the metal decking. He waved to Wilson and Rhodey, giving Vision a nod. “I’d say it’s good to see you guys, but, well…” He stepped out of the suit, before securing that armor with mechanized straps he’d designed. “Wish circumstances were different.”
Rhodey pulled Tony in for a one-armed hug before smiling and shaking his head. “Gotta say, Tone,” Rhodey whispered in his ear, taking him by the arm. “When Rogers said we were heading here, this was not what I was expecting.”
“What’d you think,” Tony pulled away, stuffing his hands in his pockets. He tucked his chin against his chest. “That I’d created another evil robot or something?”
“Hey man, it’s not your fault. Steve’s just upset you didn’t call us sooner,” the man with the winged jetpack, Wilson, said, from Tony’s other side. He clamped a hand on Tony’s shoulder, and the touch just felt off. Wrong, somehow, when Barnes was out there.
“Whatever,” Tony muttered, grabbing a jump seat as Romanoff rattled off clearance codes to the local authorities for departure. “Hey wait, where’s the witch?”
“If we’re up against Hydra, she’s still more of a liability than an asset right now,” Natasha called back; the jet lifted smoothly into the air. “We don’t know if we can trust her yet, and she’s still grieving."
“Great. Already down one. I wish Barton was here,” Tony said, before smacking himself in the forehead. “God, I can’t believe I just said that.”
“Can it,” Rogers spun his chair around to face the others. “Tony, wanna explain how you managed to lose an amnesiac super soldier to Hydra?”
Tony winced. “Technically, I didn’t—”
“Captain Rogers,” Friday interrupted, overriding the jet’s internal speakers as her Irish lilt echoed against the interior. “Sir respected the wishes of Mr. Winter. Although I am unable and unwilling to share personal details regarding Mr. Winter’s recovery, I am assured by my calculations and comparisons with standard benchmarks for care that any other approach would not have resulted in Mr. Winter’s progress in the short six weeks he has spent in Mr. Stark’s care.”
“What? Six weeks?” Steve shouted.
“Friday,” Tony muttered, “Exnay on the Imetay.”
“Now Captain,” Vision’s calm voice echoed across the small cabin, “I’m sure that Si—Mr. Stark has his reasons for not contacting you, whatever they may be.”
“I don’t care what his reasons are, he knew we were searching for Bucky and—”
“Hey, hey, whoa man,” Wilson tried to put a hand on Steve’s shoulder, but the super soldier shrugged him off. “Are you even listening right now? The creepy disembodied voice said Barnes was getting better.”
“He’s been kidnapped by Hydra,” Steve spat. “How is that better?”
“Sorry Rogers,” Tony snarled, “Kinda thought that he’d been through enough, you know? So I didn’t think to handcuff him to the radiator while I took a shower. I let him have free reign of the place like a human fucking being. What was I supposed to do, Cap? Keep him prisoner?”
“You were supposed to keep him safe!” Rogers shouted, twin red spots forming high on the taller man’s cheeks.
“I did!” Tony protested. “Not my fault he’s got free will, that he—”
“And why didn’t you go after him, when you first discovered he was missing?” Rogers hissed, pulling out of Sam’s grip.
“Because it was a goddamn stealth jet, and the tracker I placed on him is good but not that precise,” Tony shouted back. He threw his hands in the air, frustrated. “And as much as I hate to admit it, Cap, there are limits to what even I can do. To what my tech alone can do. So I thought I called in professionals to help me rescue him. As a team.”
“Enough!” Natasha snapped, and, Tony conceded, the death glare she threw in his direction was a little scary. “We will discuss later how Barnes ended up here. Right now, we have work to do. Stark, where are we headed?”
Tony tapped the interface to his right, connecting in with Friday to display a map with a blinking red dot crossing near the North pole. “Friday estimated the trajectory based on current flight path, speed, and so on,” Tony waved and another line appeared, angling towards Eastern Siberia. “Guessing that’s your missing Hydra base? ETA three hours to landing. The tracker’s in his metal arm, so if they remove that—” Tony grimaced, unable to fathom it. “Friday, relay those coordinates to Nat’s screens.”
Watching the red dot cross onto land after leaving the arctic circle made Tony’s stomach twist in knots. The quinjet was gaining speed, but they’d still be late. Thirty minutes, maybe an hour before they could figure out how to infiltrate the base, or more.
So much could happen in an hour.
Tony tapped his fingers against the screen, impatient. Numbers appeared beside the dot, calculating its speed, and Tony tapped again, bringing up the outside temperature at this altitude, marginalizing for temperature and drag factors on a stealth craft (that still didn’t show up on the quinjet’s radar, and that was unacceptable, that’s the next thing he was going to resolve—they couldn’t wipe Barnes’s memory on the jet, could they?).
His knee jerked up and down in a nervous, quick gesture as he worked, overlaying scenario upon scenario with satellite feed and surface to ground pulses to determine the craft’s trajectory. The fact that they could get James out of New York that quickly, they had to have been following him, had to have known he was in New York. Tony pinched the bridge of his nose. He remembered what James had said, that’ he’d come to Tony to end it all, to surrender himself, thinking Tony would turn him over to SHIELD or worse. And they’d made such progress since that night, such progress—Asher said the other day that he’d be ready to call Steve, soon, well, not like this—
Tony shivered. What if Hydra managed to muck up James’s mind again, erase everything , to—What was it that the doc had said? Something about the damage to the connector pathways being the cause of Barnes’s amnesia, so the older memories were more deeply buried, inaccessible until the neurons healed and reconnected—And a massive electromagnetic surge needed to do that level of damage to James’s neuro-pathways? It wouldn’t be simple, and anyone else without the brain chemistry of a super soldier, constantly repairing itself, wouldn’t have survived. His fingers flew across the screen, numbers streaming past in quick jerks as he calculated the energy level needed—when SHIELD fell, Tony had spent weeks going over the data with J.A.R.V.I.S., had found a rough design layout in SHIELD’s files for something that looked like a dental chair on steroids, that he could never figure out what use it would have had to an intelligence organization. But that thing, if his hunch was right, it looked like it’d been grounded in so many places against a current, like it required a certain power level to destroy the motor neuron pathways.
Tony exhaled, relieved. The voltage required wasn’t sustainable on a craft that size, it would have to be something larger, something that could have enough grounding to channel that amount of power—they could try it, but it would likely drop the jet like a rock if it overloaded, so not a good idea—fuck, the dot was going faster, what did they have, some extra propulsion package? The quinjet should be faster than this.
A hand clamped on his shoulder—Tony startled, only to find Wilson staring back at him, a gentle smile on the man’s face. Like he could somehow tease the answers out of Stark by playing good cop to Roger’s bad. Oh, Tony grimaced. Shit. Rogers was there too, looking like someone’d peed in his cheerios, then dumped the cereal bowl on his head.
“What do you want?” Tony barked, turning his attention back to the screen. He switched back to the calculations running through probable destinations based on the trajectory and satellite feed images. Given the terrain, it was likely the base was underground somewhere, hidden by ice and snow and permafrost most of the year. But it was almost summer, so it shouldn’t be—
“Just wanna know why, you know?” Wilson’s voice was deceptively calm. It made Tony nervous. “Cap’s been looking for Bucky for a long time.”
“Because he asked me not to,” Tony shook off the hand still on his shoulder. “And he isn’t Bucky, not right now. He doesn’t know Steve, can’t remember anything more than what he’s read on the internet about him, not yet, and—”
“He doesn’t— he doesn’t remember me?” Steve interrupted.
Tony cursed under his breath. He should have known Steve wouldn’t let it rest. “No. He doesn’t. Not right now.” He sighed, spinning his chair around. “He’s getting bits and pieces, but his memories are not coming back linearly. The—the pathways in his brain, that make the connections, are damaged.”
“What about—isn’t there—there must be something they can do, that a doctor could—?”
“No,” Tony cut him off. “Rogers, I’m going to stop you right there. There isn’t anything they can do. James’s brain has to fix itself.”
Steve straightened his shoulders, offended. “How do you know? Maybe talking to me, seeing me, would help his memories—”
Tony rubbed a hand tiredly over his eyes. “Cap—”
“I could have helped!” Steve protested again.
“Fuck,” Tony muttered. “Steve, you don’t understand.”
“Then explain it to me, Stark!” Rogers growled. “You’re right, I don’t understand! He was my best friend, my brother in all but name, everyone knows that. Everyone. And you found him, and didn’t even tell me?” He loomed over Tony, larger than life and standing at his full six foot two of brawn and bulk and Stark, he wanted to laugh, at the irony of it all. But that would probably, no definitely, be a bad idea. The worst idea.
He giggled, the stress and fear catching up with him, before he could stop himself.
“This isn’t funny!” Steve hissed. “Why are you laughing?”
Tony turned back towards the monitors, flipping screens to sync with his home server before he pulled up an image on the projector. There, displayed for everyone, stood an image of Tony’s chest and throat, the top edges of his scars visible at the bottom of the screen, his goatee clear across the top, the ring of purple and red bruising contrasting sharply around his neck. If Tony looked close enough, he could see the indentations where James’s fingertips had dug into his throat, purple dots exposed against the skin.
“Interesting,” Vision said. “Those injuries are decidedly worse than what Friday conveyed. I do believe she’s learned how to lie.”
“Ha. Yeah, apparently. She wasn’t supposed to even be tattling to you,” Tony grumbled, wiping his eyes. Moisture had somehow built up at the edges, and his skin felt hot.
“Jesus, Tone,” Rhodey whispered beside him. “That’s you?! What the fuck happened?”
“Steve,” Tony said, ignoring Rhodey’s outburst. “This happened the very first day, when I asked about calling you. Your name—it’s a trigger, set by James’s former handlers. Like you said, everyone knew you guys were close. Including whoever set up these triggers after every mind wipe. So that they are reinforced. So they survive a wipe when nothing else does. Mentioning your name, it lights up areas of his brain. You know what a trigger is? Sets off a series of emotions and responses he couldn’t control. Probably why he attacked you, even if he didn’t want to. It’d be like Pavlov’s dog, you know? Do it, because whatever response his brain is expecting is worse than the conflict in his head.”
“Tony,” Rhodey murmured, horrified.
A hand squeezed his shoulder, but Stark barreled on, his voice hard, unyielding. “Hell, we’re consulting weekly with one of the best neuro- psychologists in the world. Took his brain scans myself a few weeks ago, using a modified imager that I built to see brainwaves without a bunch of wires and do-dads around him. I’ve got so much data on how his brain works now, I could probably keep our neuroscientist busy for the rest of her career.”
“Will he recover?” Wilson asked, and Tony was glad suddenly that the veteran and Steve had become friends. That Steve had someone who could understand him, understand his history in a way Tony never could.
Tony shrugged. “Doc doesn’t know if or when the pathways will reconnect. It could never happen, it could happen tomorrow. The problem is the triggers. His body, his mind is scared of the very things he can’t remember. She called it a standoff, between his memories and the brainwashing bullshit Hydra put him through. Said— one option that she thinks might work, to, you know, trigger his memories returning—is to induce pain and present the stimuli. Like hurt him, and then Steve’s pretty mug shows up. Ruled that out for obvious reasons.”
Rogers made a choked sound; he collapsed into the jump seat near Tony.
Stark stared at the floor, his fingers twisting the dial of his watch in circles.
“But he is getting better, Steve. Really. We can talk about you, now, without him going ballistic. Pictures are still hard.” He chuckled, a painful, flat sound. “Last time some special came on about the battle of New York—showing your pretty mug—I had to buy another new flatscreen for the living room. Second one this month. Pepper asked if I had thrown a rave or something.” That got a laugh out of Rhodey, and Tony shot his friend a grateful smile, before risking a glance at Steve. “But he’s trying. Exposure therapy, and all that. Did I mention I got him into the best psychiatrist in New York for torture and brainwashing victims? Nothing but the best, Steve. I also have lawyers already working on his innocence claim. You see now, why he wasn’t ready to see you? That was his choice, Rogers. I respected his decision.”
“Tony…” Rogers whispered.
Tony huffed. “Save it,” he spun back towards the monitor, pulling up the trajectory map and satellite feed before he expanded the area to fill the monitor. He pointed to a blip in the radar, near where the trajectory line ended, an area pixilated and hidden by electronic interference. “Here’s your missing Hydra base. Looks like it’s underground, one entrance, hangar probably hidden. Figure out how to get us inside of that, and you two can have your old man pity party later.”
“Alright, listen up,” Steve ordered a few hours later. He’d already pulled the cowl over his face and positioned the star-spangled shield on his back. “This isn’t going to be like the last few ops. Everything’s underground, there’s only one entrance, we don’t know what to expect inside. And we’re down a few teammates, no time to call for backup.”
“Tell us something we don’t know,” Stark muttered, fiddling with the wires connected to a Starkphone he’d gutted during the flight. The quinjet had been on the ground for less than five minute, hidden in the trees near the sole entrance visible on satellite, and already Tony was anxious to move. The signal had stopped moving almost forty minutes ago; forty minutes was too long, way too fucking long.
Steve ignored him, pointing at Wilson. “Sam, I want you on air support. Keep low, keep hidden, watch the radar unless you see anything moving out there, then light up the coms. Watch for any air traffic in or out—if they decide to move him again, it’s probably gonna be by air.”
“Gotcha covered, Cap,” Wilson pulled flight goggles over his eyes, adjusting the eye-cups against his cheeks.
“Colonel Rhodes, you’re sitting this one out.”
“What!” Tony protested, “Cap—”
“Tony, he’s right, I’m active duty military.”
“So what, you’re an Avenger too—”
“Stark, we’re in Russia,” Steve interrupted. “Last thing we can afford is to create an international incident if Russia’s military is involved in this operation.”
“He’s right, Tone.”
“Whatever,” Tony rolled his eyes, before perking up. “Pretty sure I could buy Russia now. Rubles are so cheap…”
Steve sighed, before pointing at Natasha. “You and Vision, stick together. Find the mainframe. Get whatever data you can and get out. If they’re experimenting on people here, I wanna know. If they’re carving ivory chess sets and selling it on the black market in China, I wanna know everything. I don’t care what it is, I wanna know what Hydra’s doing here and why.”
Natasha nodded, and Tony handed her the StarkPhone, before flipping a second one in Rogers’ direction.
“Stark, know where we’re going?” Rogers glanced at the phone screen. “This doesn’t look very localized.”
“Best we can do until we’re inside,” Tony shrugged, feigning calm. His heart felt like it was beating a tango against his thin ribcage. “The signal’s weak. Could be distance underground, could be the power source.”
And that was the most likely option, which was not something Tony wanted to think about. The tracker itself was powered by the arm’s internal wiring, which was hooked in with James’s nervous system. If they’d removed or damaged the arm, found the tracker, anything—Tony shivered, brushing off the images his mind conjured with an arrogant sneer as he maximized a window on his screen. “Friday’s best estimate is that R&D will be on the lower levels, four or five down, no more. The soil here, it’s too dense a clay for anything deeper.”
He pointed to a dot on the satellite feed, a patch of earth where the grasses were short and shrubbery missing. “We know the signal first weakened near here. So there may be a hidden hangar or other entrance to keep watch on, blow up, whatever. I’ve modified some Starkphones to show you the signal strength and direction, and it may register some internal mapping components, as the suit gathers data.”
“You mean it will make a map of the facility for us, the further you get inside?” Rogers clarified.
“Exactly,” Tony stood and stepped back towards the Iron Man armor, letting it form around him with the face plate open. “If they’ve removed his arm, that fancy tracker goes with it. We’ll have to split up, fan out. The maps will keep track of where we’ve been.”
“So we may have to search the entire facility,” Rogers concluded. “Remember guys, our prerogative is getting Bucky out. Don’t take unnecessary risks. And stay on coms; if you need help, ask. Let’s go.”
Getting inside had been the easy part, Tony mused later.
Typical Russian engineering, the doors hadn’t even taken a full blast from the armor’s repulsors before crumbling into a twisted projectile of metal and sheetrock that ricocheted against the corridor walls as he and Steve pushed inside. The corridor was empty, past the broken and bent bodies of two guards that had clearly been standing directly in front of the door, giving way to a black utilitarian passage that reminded Tony of Afghanistan.
Then Natasha and Vision split off, running down the corridor in the opposite direction, Vision insisting the mainframe was that way. And Steve had hurried off in the other direction, with Stark clambering to keep up in the suit. The good Captain was a fair bit more agile on the ground than Stark, his shield bouncing from wall to wall as doors opened, decapitating a few men before they could even raise the alarm and Tony took out the few that survived with quick flicks of his repulsors.
But it was unnerving, how little resistance they encountered. It made Tony nervous. What kind of Hydra base had no security? It was either arrogance or something much, much worse.
Frankly the dark, damp-smelling passageway didn’t help, either.
They’d made it down two levels without a scratch—Steve hadn’t even broken a sweat—when the corridor abruptly split in two, one open and gaping with a red light at the far end, another set of stairs barely visible like a pathway into hell. In the other direction, a six foot round door embedded in reinforced concrete blocks covered the entire passageway from floor to ceiling, the door’s paint shimmering silver in the faint light.
“Which way?” Steve barked, placing his shield on his back as he gave a shove at the handle on the round metal door.
It didn’t budge an inch, just as Tony expected. He huffed an amused sound inside the helmet, letting Friday scan for heat signatures beyond the door. So far, every floor they’d searched had but a cluster of empty rooms, more like supply closets, and even fewer of Hydra’s goons. Either they didn’t use this base often, or they hadn’t anticipating being followed. “Blue dot’s down from here, looks like 400 feet to our left and down twenty,” Tony pointed towards the other hallway. “But signal’s still weak even this close, and Friday’s showing some heat here.”
“I’ll take the stairs then,” Steve said, jogging off. “You crack the safe. Stay on coms, in case we need a quick flight out.”
“Uh. Okay?” Tony frowned. Easier said than done. The damn thing had an old-fashioned circular handle with something resembling a combination lock and a keyhole filled with some stone-like material. Tony ran a gauntleted finger around the rim of the door. It was rusted in places, but thick. Probably 1950s tech, with blast cables that would jam the door in place if the glass plating was shattered. Though how Hydra managed to get this behemoth this far underground without breaking it, who the fuck knew—
Tony pried at the edge where the steel door met the concrete surface; the stone felt rough under his fingers, brittle from the damp. Whatever this door had been installed to protect, it had been set a long time ago. “How thick do you think it is? Based on the heat radiating, is it electric behind here? People?”
“To generate the level of energy dispelled to raise the surface temperature of the cement structures by .05 degrees above the ambient air temperature of the tunnels, by my calculations the energy source would be quite large.”
“Like a bunch of over-conducting circuits kinda large,” Tony sucked in a breath. “Let’s hope I’m wrong. Can I melt it?”
“Sir, based on the density of the concrete walls, it appears that the doorway is set within reinforced steel plating without a cast aluminum or copper layer. A thermic lance would be sufficient to melt the material. ”
“Or a concentrated repulsor blast at the concrete plating.” Tony raised his suited arm to position his palm. “I like the way you think, Fri.”
“I should warn you that the level of smoke that may be created by this action will limit visibility once inside.”
“Whatever. Carpe diem, up the power and let’s blast this shit.”
The beam was almost too bright for Tony’s eyes inside the helmet HUD, and he squinted as the blast melted first the thick layer of concrete, before bright orange-red flames burst forth, as the steel ignited behind it. The iron-oxide flames turned the air dark with thick smoke, something else, something chemical in the coating, and Tony slowly moved his hand up in an arc, until he’d burned through the concrete and steel nearest to the right side of the vault frame. He angled his arm away from the door, slowly moving in an arch big enough to create a doorway for the suit.
It smelled terrible, even from within the suit, like the stench of iron oxide mixed with something acidic, something worse. The chemical smell reminded him of something, smelled familiar. Like some sort of reaction he’d completed in chemistry class, right before his lab partner pulled the fire alarm and he’d passed out.
“Friday, warn Cap not to come up here until the smoke dissipates.” Tony muttered, biting his lip as he concentrated on moving his arm in a slow pattern over the concrete wall.
“Noted,” Friday toned.
As if on cue, the fire alarm sounded in the background, a clanging noise that echoed down the hallway with brittle rings. Tony turned the arc downward, towards the floor. In the corner of the HUD, Friday had thrown up a display showing the thickness of the beam based on the smoke produced, and Tony waited to move on from each section until the thickness read close to zero. A foot above the floor, and he arched sideways, back towards his initial cut. With any luck, he’d be able to blast through the remaining concrete and steel with a well placed unibeam at the center point. And hopefully no one he cared about was waiting right on the other side of this wall.
“Stark,” Cap’s voice filtered through the com. “Found another stairway, going down again. Level below you had nothing, just a bunch of cables hanging from the ceiling. Natasha and Vision are done, heading your way when the smoke clears. Friday’s going to let us know.”
“Noted,” Tony grimaced, flicking off the beam. He took a step back, bracing himself, one foot in front of the other and palm repulsors extended behind him. “Friday, let’s unibeam this sucker, on my mark, in three, two, one—”
At first nothing happened, and Tony worried he’d miscalculated the cut or strength of the wall as he slipped backwards on the floor a few inches from the blast impact. Then suddenly, as though a tornado had picked him up and thrown him across the room, the concrete barrier gave way and Tony fell forward.
“Blast off!” he barked, barely managing to right himself as he lifted into the air, shooting through the small circular hole in a precision move. Inside, the room was cavernous, a huge hangar the size of two football fields, and nearly five, maybe six stories tall. The ceiling looked mechanical, gears and chains criss-crossing the surface. Tony shot up into the air; across the room, that was Hydra’s stealth jet, a small, sleek black thing that looked like it’d been copied off Stark’s improvements to SHIELD’s quinjets, the newness of the plane’s construction in stark contrast with its surroundings. Ten—no, fifteen men, armed and scrambling for their weapons now. Another ten or so across the room scrambled to duck behind the jet. A few more in white coats, ran around hitting seemingly unrelated commands at different control panels— he turned again, letting the HUD map the floor, walls, around him—cables and wires littered the floor stretching off towards the left, and Tony turned, following the cables until—
There—he caught a glimmer of something silver and flesh-colored, strapped against a cage of metal and wire, dark hair a mess, where the cables converged—
“James,” he whispered. “Friday, tell Cap—”
“The room is lined with lead paneling and electrical interference, Sir, I cannot reach—”
A bullet ricocheted off the armor and Tony twisted to the right, turning in time to see a man raising a machine gun in his direction. “Shit!” he flipped, turning in time to see another man sporting an automatic. He picked him off with a short blast and then the two more behind him, before flames erupted unexpectedly to his right. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, a flame thrower? Inside? Who does this shit anymore?”
“Sir, it looks like the energy levels are rising. Someone is attempting to power on the device attached to Mr. Winter,” Friday’s voice warned, and Tony almost thought she sounded panicked.
“Stop them!” he snapped, twisting again to avoid another round of vehicle-piercing bullets. He didn’t think they’d take out the suit at a distance, but this close in range, it wasn’t ideal. “Where’s the power source originate?”
“Far right wall, behind the storage bins,” Friday replied. “Attempting to access network.”
“Fuck,” Tony careened himself towards the barrels, only realizing at the last minute that the bright blue bins had the symbol for toxic waste, as he pulled up, aiming his repulsor blast at the ceiling instead.
“Fucking Hydra, who—” he yelped in surprise, pulling up again as another round of fire rang out, this time from a few men hiding behind the barrels. He locked on with individual targeting rounds, watching the two fall before following the cables towards the wall—into the floor, reinforced—no way to reach the source. “Friday, I can’t take these cables out, it will overload everything in its path including—”
“Control panel on far left side of the hangar. It can only be accessed manually,” Friday interrupted, and Tony switched directions again, throwing a small munitions round at the sleek aircraft behind him for good measure.
The resounding boom that followed shook the room, knocking Tony shoulder-first into a support beam. He grappled for hold as a concussive shockwave rattled the room, filling it with smoke. Then he was falling, as his right boot misfired, before reigniting. “Hydra stores their fuel next to their plane.” Tony muttered. “So noted.”
“Iron Man!” someone shouted, and Tony twisted back to see another gun-toting asshole running at him, firing as though he were in a Rambo movie. Really, couldn’t anyone get good help nowadays? He barrel rolled into a dive, coming in hot as the gunman twisted in vain to keep up, before his right thruster gave way again, and Tony tackled the gunman, riding his prone form across the cement floor until the guy slammed head first into a wall.
“Thanks for the catch,” Tony pushed himself up, just in time to clamber behind a densely-packed shelving unit. Across the bay, another explosion sounded. He glanced over his shoulder, marveling at how the orange flames were already licking the roof of the hangar, fifty feet up.
“Yeah, that’s not good. Friday, get those doors open or we’re all gonna die anyway,” Tony ordered, checking his ammunition. The targeting rounds were almost empty; his repulsors needed a few more seconds to recharge. But most worrisome was the malfunction error on his right boot. “Come on Steve, didn’t you hear that? Where the fuck is everyone?"
A sound echoed across the room, and Barnes shouted. No, not shouted, screamed. Tony cursed, spinning into action, right boot be damned. He twisted around, firing thrusters until he rocketed into the closest white-coat. The man’s head snapped back against Tony’s shoulder as he hit top speed, before Tony reversed his thrusters and spun in the other direction. The scientist crashed against the opposite wall with a satisfying crunch.
“No!” James shouted again; there was a man trying to shove his head backwards, towards a black vice that hovered behind him, and Tony lifted his palm repulsor to take him down—but the guy was standing behind James, and he couldn’t risk it.
“Friday!” Tony shouted. “Need to cut that power somehow!”
“Working,” the A.I. replied. The screen lit up, highlighting another cable, this one thinner than the one running to the far wall. “This system appears to power the control panels, I recommend—”
“On it!” Tony shouted, lifting into the air at a lopsided whirl as the right boot sputtered. He aimed a half-hearted blast at the two Hydra agents firing machine guns, before targeting the secondary power cable. Having sliced the cord, Tony spun in a circle, firing the last of his targeting munitions—the bodies thumped to the ground like a drumbeat, one after the other. He raised his hands, angling towards the last two white coats.
“Back off!” he ordered. One of the men, the one furthest from him raised his hands in surrender and looked to be fleeing, until the second one, the one still madly struggling to connect the last electrode from the black helmet-like device over Barnes’s head, raised his handgun and shot the fleeing scientist.
Tony didn’t hesitate; he fired, letting Friday’s precision slip across his own targeting system to direct the blast, sending the last white coat reeling backwards. Yet the device appeared to still be charging—a panel to his left exploded, and Tony surged forward, metal-enclosed fingers scrabbling at the controls, searching for the release—
“Who’s controlling this thing? How—”
“Remote access, Sir.”
A portion of his HUD lit up, showing a small camera hidden in the corner of the room, and another, smaller one yet, implanted in the panel controls. He smashed the panel module, before turning towards James.
“Turn it off!” he roared. “Kill the power—no, no, no!”
The electrical current surged, flaring blue above James’s head as the unconnected electrode fluttered in the current. James screamed.
And then fell silent—his chest heaving so painfully fast that Tony’s own sternum hurt watching it. Worse than that night, that seemed so long ago now, when James had first cut his hair, had first let go of the beard and disguise that had hidden him for so long, trusted him. Trusted Tony, of all people.
“I’ve terminated the connection. Power source disengaged,” Friday’s voice rang out. “Overriding hangar doors now.”
Above them, a bright patch of sky appeared and air flushed inward, smoke billowing out as the sunshine lit Barnes’s features in a pale silhouette, so Tony could see him, truly see him now.
His chest was bare, stripped of the trim blue v-neck he’d been wearing yesterday. Angry red lines stood out against James’s shoulder, a criss-cross of patterns and colors where the metal socket of his left arm met his chest and shoulder, scars that looked old and yet still inflamed, stretched and pulled and worried by the weight of an arm too heavy for his skin. And below that— Tony felt bile rise in his throat— the metal arm was gone. Missing. Not just removed, but clearly torn free just above the elbow, a mess of wires and damaged platings hanging from where his forearm should have been.
“Friday, call the others. Tell ‘em to get out, I’ll get James to the jet.” His legs felt like jelly as he moved forward, each step jarring his shoulder. Huh, must have landed on his side harder than he’d thought, he realized, when he’d used that scumbag as a human toboggan. No matter.
James looked terrified; he was so close to hyperventilating, Tony could see the fear in his wide blue eyes. His arms and chest were secured with metal bands that dug into his flesh with each inhale, ankles and thighs similarly encased in restraints, the black helmet half-hanging off his head. This close Tony could see the tiny currents firing across the connectors, where his arm should have been. Where the tracker had been. Damn, Tony thought. He couldn’t imagine the pain, still remembered how James had jumped the one time Tony had accidentally nudged one of those connectors.
“James,” Tony’s voice wobbled, as he ripped off the leg restraints one after the other. His fault, his fault, Tony grimaced as he tugged gently at the metal band circling what remained of the arm. Barnes keened, and for a moment stopped breathing as Tony carefully pried the metal away, avoiding the stump best he could while tossing the restraint aside. Then it was short work to knock that hated helmet away and rip out the last few restraints, freeing Barnes from that dreaded contraption.
But James didn’t move; hadn’t said a word, as Tony crouched lower to meet his eyes. A pale blue, distant gaze met his, unseeing. It was like looking into an abyss, the moment before falling, seeing everything flash away in a ball of light and knowing it was all for naught, that the world was an empty, cold place.
Tony let the gauntlet retract from his right hand, reached with trembling fingers towards James’s face. The man’s eyes snapped to his hand, watching it move across his field of vision like an abused pup watches its handlers, afraid to move but ready, wanting to lash out, to fight back. Then his fingers grazed against James’s scalp, burying in that impossibly soft, tangled mess hair, and Tony stroked his hand through the tangled locks. Carefully, at first, brushing a stray bit out of James’s eyes. Then more firmly, as if to say that he was here, he understood. That James wasn’t alone anymore.
It’s that moment, when Tony saw him, actually watched the man in front of him return to the world. Through the fog of fear and pain and something worse, much worse, of knowing he was about to lose himself again, forever and ever, to forget everything he’d learned, everything he’d done since he’d shaken off Hydra’s control over a year ago, and Tony saw it all. Watched as everything that happened suddenly became too much, too overwhelming for the super soldier. Too lonely, inside that pretty head.
“Tony?” Barnes whispered, afraid to hope.
“I’m here, James. I got you.”
And James crumpled forward with a sob, into Tony’s waiting arms.
“Friday, spin that over and start my playlist,” Tony twirled in his chair, then kicked off towards the holo-floor. It’d taken him a while to figure out how to channel Friday’s interpretations, but switching to a digital playlist had eliminated the need for Friday to recognize slang, at least. Something else to work on, when he had time again.
An image materialized in the air, blue and green against the angry red stress points, and he shifted sideways across the floor, letting his fingers drum against his knee in time with the music as he twisted the image above and around him.
The more he raised the elbow joint of the design, the greater impact it put on the side plating, which couldn’t sustain—Cho said it wouldn’t budge, but the point was to make this one better—he turned the model again, examining the socket. Technically it wasn’t installed yet; he’d have to wait for the good doctor to finish up, removing the last of what she could of Hydra’s cruelly-designed monstrosity from James’s shoulder and ribs. From the scans, she’d hoped to leave enough of the joint to create a connection plate for the new arm design, but that wasn’t enough. It had to work, without hurting the former assassin. The complicated part would be undoing the metal-on-bone super-healed tissue grafts that Hydra had literally hard-wired into Barnes’s nervous and skeletal systems. It was no wonder the arm hurt him; the damn thing pulled on his rib cage for support, relying on bone where a real arm would use muscle.
Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, wincing as his sinuses twanged. He reached for his coffee, left resting on a side table. It was cold, bitter and disgusting. Like everything else this week, since they’d returned from Russia.
The flight back had been rough. James’s arm, torn away just above the elbow, ached as though it were a bleeding, empty mess; as though his limb had actually been chopped away, wired into his nervous system and hardwired to send pain signals to the man’s brain. Nothing they tried had worked. Morphine, sedatives, nothing stopped the signals of pain, pain, pain. The best they could do was make the former soldier comfortable, propped up in a jump seat without touching the metal bits and fragments, feeding him morphine pills every twenty minutes to take the edge off. His metabolism wasn’t as fast as Steve’s was, but only just. It’d taken Tony all of twenty minutes to arrange for Cho to meet them back at the tower. Within a few hours after they’d arrived back in New York, she’d managed to disengage the nerve connections within his shoulder, temporarily blocking the biofeedback loop to James’s brain with synthetic glue of some sort.
The relief on James’s face was instantaneous. He’d exhaled suddenly, releasing his vice-like grip he’d had on Tony’s hand since they’d landed on the quinjet, then stood and pulled Captain Perfect into a one-armed hug.
Just like that, Tony was invisible.
Then the assholes just kept hugging, like nothing else existed, like Cho wasn’t still trying to scan Barnes’s stump; like they couldn’t see Natasha’s fiery glare from the edge of the room. Like the world around them had disappeared. And Tony remembered how his stomach had sunk, when James’s breath had hitched, the preface to a sob, wrapped up in the arms of his best friend.
Tony grimaced, biting his lip. As the brain doc had predicted, the cognitive stimulation of running into his long lost pal while already under severe physical distress had triggered, how did she put it, a flood of new information. A flood, alright. One minute it was James in Tony’s arms, clinging to the armor as he’d flown them both out of that hangar and rested briefly on the landing ramp to the quinjet, before the former assassin had gone limp, muttering ‘Oh!’ the moment he laid eyes on Rogers. He had remembered. Remembered everything. He had suddenly known who he was, remembered his name; serial number; war stories; shit, even the Brooklyn accent had come rushing back.
And if that wasn’t enough, James probably wanted to be called Bucky, now.
Not that Tony was jealous, of course. That would be immature. His leg jiggled impatiently, and Stark resisted the urge to check his watch again.
He’d known this would be a long, delicate process—but Tony would be damned if he’d wait upstairs next to Captain Goody-Two-Shoes while Barnes was in surgery. Rogers already had glared at him, when Stark had popped by a few days ago to say hello to Dr. Aladjem. Really, it was his kitchen, couldn’t he get a sandwich without it being suspicious?
“Sir, you have a visitor,” Friday chimed, killing the music.
Tony looked up, surprised, only to exhale in disappointment. “Asher,” Tony mustered a half-hearted wave. He’d forgotten he’d granted the good doctor access to the workshop in case James had an episode or whatever early on in their exposure therapy work. “Speak of the devil.”
“Tony,” the bespeckled man replied congenially, not at all dissuaded by Stark’s abrasive greeting as he sat down on the couch across from the billionaire. “How are you?”
The billionaire shrugged. “Okay, I guess. What are you doing here? Did Friday call you?”
The man grinned. “She was concerned, yes. She said that it would be best if I were here, when he awoke after surgery.”
Stark huffed. “She’s so overprotective.”
Asher made an affirmative noise. “And,” he continued, “I was surprised to find that you weren’t waiting with Captain Rogers.”
Tony shrugged, making a half-hearted gesture towards the holodisplay. “Friday will tell me how it goes. Got work to do anyway.”
Asher’s returning smile was tight, pained. “I see. Well, it shouldn’t be long now. Shall we?”
Tony sighed, giving his chair a half spin just to buy time. “Fine. Fine. Let’s go.”
He didn’t actually get it, Tony mused later.
Asher probably assumed he was a cold-hearted jerk like everyone else. Like Rogers had implied, when he’d gone with Asher up to recovery to check on their—his—Doctor Aladjem’s—patient. The taller man’s smile was strained, like his face right before he’d torn that goddamn hunk of wood in half at the farm, and Tony didn’t know anymore what to make of it. There was only so much disapproval he needed, in his life.
Everyone left him, eventually.
He picked up the tumbler, staring at the amber liquid inside. He’d stayed long enough to see that James’s eyes were open, even if the man was groggy and disoriented. Cho had given him some final scans, her picture-perfect machinery accurate down to the inch—she’d been able to regraft much of the skin surrounding James’s shoulder, leaving in place the barest minimum of a socket needed to connect a bio-mechanical arm. With any luck, whatever Tony came up with would be light enough to not put additional strain on the joint, hard-wired as it was into his nerves and tissue. But it wouldn’t hurt anymore, not like that. Cho had regrafted the nerve tissue to allow for sensation—hot, cold, the lightest of touches, but blocked the longer-ending nerve tissue cut off by Hydra’s surgeons. The arm would be fully cybernetic without any of the painful drawbacks.
And Rogers had scowled at him, as Tony had nodded once to James and backed away.
He’d thought he’d heard someone calling his name, but that wasn’t possible. James—Bucky had Steve now.
“Sir, Captain Rogers wish to know if you’ll be joining them for dinner tonight before Colonel Rhodes, Mr. Wilson, and Ms. Romanoff return to headquarters.”
Ha, Tony giggled suddenly. Bet Rogers made something special. Something from Bucky’s childhood. Lasagna or something Italian, or some Irish stew. Something Brooklyn. James would have been released from recovery this morning, his super-healing abilities regenerating enough that Cho would be satisfied her hard work wouldn’t be undone. Asher had texted him as much yesterday—was it only yesterday? After he’d spoken with James and met Steve.
Everyone loved Steve.
The scotch burned, an unfamiliar ache in his chest as Tony knocked back another gulp.
“Sir, Captain Rogers insists—”
“No, too much to do. Order me some Thai, and then lock it down. And I mean really lock it down, Friday, don’t make me gut your programming—Rogers doesn’t get in here unless the world’s on fire,” he finished his scotch with a quick gulp. “Daddy’s got work to do.”
He remembered someone calling his name, from far away, and then a fondly spoken insult, closer then.
‘Idiot,’ the voice had mumbled, and something soft was pulled up around his shoulders. He tried to burrow into the warmth, into the too-human hand brushing over his forehead. But then it was gone in a haze of liquor and coffee and exhaustion, a wisp of smoke rising from the ashes.
He slept again.
His mouth tasted like cotton and burnt rubber, mixed with smoke and ash. Like Pompeii had exploded in his esophagus and left its ruins against his gum lines. He grimaced, wiping the drool from his mouth. A blanket fell from his shoulders, and before Tony could contemplate the soft fabric, his brain had seized on the blinking red emblem in the corner of his workstation.
“It’s done?” he asked, stumbling to his feet. “How’d synthesis of the socket go?”
“Synthesis is complete. Doctor Cho has reviewed the schematics and has concerns about stress quadrants along the solar plexus related to the connection between the artificial bicep and chest ring, section—”
“Yeah I know but if we weaken that connection then it will be too tight along the back. Send her scenario 67 for review, ask her if that looks better.”
“Done,” Friday replied. “Local time in Seoul is 5:45 AM, an answer will not be expected for several hours. Sir, might I recommend you continue your rest—”
“No time,” Tony grunted. “Still don’t have those finger joints right.”
He lost Friday’s reply, somewhere in the haze of coffee and drumming beat blasting from the sound system, as his own fingers copied the rhythm against the scar tissue on his chest.
At some point, the elevator opens and Tony turned around, blinking as though the fog had lifted. Huh, Tony frowned, standing up. No one’s there. He stepped towards the elevator, only to catch a whiff of something potent, something familiar.
There, in the center of the elevator, was a pizza box, two bottles of water, a steaming cup of black coffee, and a note. He picked up the note, then crumpled it in his fingers. The pizza box was warm, almost hot to the touch, and the water bottles were so cold that it numbed his scraped fingertips. The coffee was perfect. Hot, bitter, and strong; and he gulped it down first.
The pizza, it’s his favorite, of course. Canadian bacon with black olives. Nice of Friday to finally remember. Too bad Barnes couldn’t be bothered to bring it down himself.
Tony devoured the pizza, slice after slice, decidedly not thinking about how James—Bucky—is too busy hanging out with his new—former—whatever—best friend to bother bringing Tony the pizza himself. Just a note, a stupid note.
Ha. Fucking ha. And it’s clear to Tony then, somewhere between the first and last slice of the pie, that now that he’s recovered, now that his memories are back, and Barnes knows who he is again, whatever stupid schoolboy crush Tony had developed is, well, stupid. Now that the man is able to be in the same room as Captain Perfect, Tony’s no longer important.
Then, it’s almost as though a wave has crashed, finally knocking him from his pedestal, from whatever fantasies he harbored. Barnes needs the arm, needs the arm so he can go with Steve. He’ll want to go back with his friend. He’ll probably want to join the goddamn Avengers, too.
It makes sense. After all, taking down Hydra is still their top priority.
Someone’s been in the workshop.
He can tell that, the moment he wakes up. The pizza box was gone; someone had cleaned up the trash around his workstation, replaced his stash of water bottles. There’s a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt sitting on his desk, and he woke with the keys and axis buttons from one of his interface devices implanted into his cheek, from where he’d rested against the desk, and a red blanket draped around his shoulders.
Funny, he’d thought Pepper was out of town still.
And there’s a message, flagged by Friday. Steve’s leaving tomorrow, too. Has to get back to the Avengers, of course.
He didn’t know how long it’s been, since he left the workshop. Friday has stopped telling him to rest, so that was probably not a good sign.
Cho approved of the shoulder connectors; called it groundbreaking. Pepper had already called, asking what the sixteen patents on her desk were about. Tony couldn’t remember what he replied, between a haze of coffee and science and goddamn he needs to stock toothbrushes in the lab, because no.
But it was done. The arm, that is. It was done. He finally managed to make the finger joints fully operative last night—a sliding-plate design that is so smooth, Tony couldn’t feel the seams with his fingers, unless he actually looked for it. Unless he knows where to look. Everything glides like a muscle would, fluid and precise and so smooth. He should be able to change the color or overlay it with Cho’s synthetic skin, if James wants. But for now, he’s not so sure. The silver is pretty cool, after all.
“Friday,” Tony croaked, reaching for a cold cup of coffee. He choked on the grounds, before throwing it back with a sip of water. “What day is it?”
“Today is Wednesday, July 22, 2015.”
Tony scrubs a hand down his face, feeling the way his goatee sticks with grease and grime, how it’s longer in places than it should be. It’s been a little more than two weeks, now. Two weeks since James had become Bucky, since Tony realized how much his world had shifted, again.
Cho’s coming back, tomorrow. She’s going to check on her patient, and Tony patted himself on the back, thinking she can also install the new arm while she’s in town. It was brilliant. It was perfect.
It meant Tony wouldn’t have to see Barnes again, before he left with Steve.
It’ll be over soon, he’ll be alone again. With Dum-E and U and Butterfingers. It’ll be okay. It’ll be like old times.
The next morning, he sent the arm up to the common room floor, with a pad of instructions and installation guide for Cho. He took the other elevator, the private one to his penthouse, and managed to brush his teeth and shower away the grime and grease, and to trim his facial hair into something resembling his normal appearance, before falling into a restless slumber.
He slept, the kind of sleep that happens, when the world falls away and everything disappears and is so far in between spaces of reality and non-reality.
And he vaguely remembered Friday asking him something, telling him the quinjet had arrived to take Rogers back to base. He thought it was strange, in his dream, that Friday didn’t mention Barnes, too. But then he had fallen asleep again, after mumbling something wishing them well and platitudes about not being strangers. It was all too much, too hard to think about any longer.
It didn’t matter, now. Cho had come and gone, if the dusk outside his window was anything to go by. He thought about getting up, but that seemed like too much work, so he rolled over again.
And when he woke again later that night, his mouth tasting like cotton and so thirsty he couldn’t breath, he’d dragged himself to the workshop, looking for something, anything to do now that he was alone again.
The floor was a mess just like he’d left it, scattered bits of wire and metal everywhere, from the days when he spent hours sitting at his desk, assembling the joists of the arm piece by piece in a process so delicate the fabricator couldn’t be trusted to preserve the dimensions of the elbow and wrist joints. He was surprised, a little bit at least, that Cho hadn’t left a message about the install. But then again, Tony had cowardly sent the hardware up the chute like a project returned at a science fare, without a face or name. He turned to start his coffee pot, and froze.
There, sitting shirtless on the couch watching TV, in his workshop, of all goddamn people, was James. He’d brought the bionic arm with him, and Tony spied the tablet he’d sent up the elevator too, sitting beside the arm on the couch cushion.
Tony blinked, before closing his eyes again. Nope. This wasn’t possible. “I’m dreaming,” he protested.
Barnes huffed a laugh. “Yankees still suck. Seems real enough to me.”
Tony managed to fall into his chair, rubbing his eyes. It was late, the moon dipped below the horizon outside his windows; Friday hadn’t managed to dim the windows for nighttime, like J.A.R.V.I.S. would’ve, hiding away the night sky that Tony sometimes still had nightmares about. The thought made the hollow point in Tony’s chest ache.
“James,” he muttered finally, reaching for the water bottle on his desk instead of his still-brewing coffee. “What are you doing here?”
“Where else would I be?” Barnes looked nervous, as though he’d miscalculated and just now realized it, as he idly scratched at a raised scar across his left shoulder.
“But Steve already left,” Tony muttered, perplexed. He knew he sounded like a petulant child, but he couldn’t help himself. “I finished the arm,” he gestured at the metal artwork cradled now against Barnes’s chest in his good arm. “You didn’t like it?
“Who said I didn’t like it? I just wanted you to install it.” Barnes tried for a carefree grin.
Tony blinked, his mind drawing a blank. “Why?”
“Because I trust you, punk.”
“Oh. But it’s really easy to install now,” Tony muttered, perplexed, as he rubbed sleep from his eyes and scooted his chair forward to take the arm from James’s grasp. He didn’t understand why Friday had let Barnes into the workshop, or why Barnes hadn’t let Cho connect the arm in the first place, but maybe, just maybe, it meant that Barnes would stay a bit longer before he followed Steve?
He almost dared to hope, as he glided the metal contraption into the perfectly formed socket, twisting gently to the right until the tell-tale click sounded, indicating it was set perfectly into its connectors. “Gimme a sec for the diagnostics to run and get the electric impulses going. That should connect up the nerves, then. It should feel lighter than your old arm, shouldn’t pull at the scars. I know Cho was able to regenerate a lot of that, but there’s still some aggravated tissue here. This one’s waterproof, depth certified to 500 meters. That’s better than most watches, you know. You’ll set off the airport’s metal detectors though, will have to get you some certificate or whatever, not much I can do about that—” He looked up, confused by the gentle smile on James’s face. “What?”
“Nothing,” James denied.
“Um,” Tony looked back to the arm, keying the tablet. The initialization sequence was almost complete, just a few more minutes. “Okay.”
“It should—” Tony interrupts, before gesturing at Barnes to continue. “You first. Just what?”
“Never mind,” Barnes looked down. “It’s probably stupid.”
“C’mon, James,” Tony prodded, heart racing against his throat. “We have a whole minute until this is done. Just what?”
Barnes sighed. “Just that yer cute when you’re rambling about your tech.”
“Oh,” Tony squeaked, his face was warm. He keyed in the last boot sequence, watching as the power meter on the arm echoed the display on the tablet. “Oh,” he managed again. What did that mean, anyway? What did that mean? Tony cleared his throat. “Um. So. I thought you were going to go back with Steve?”
“Why would I do that?” James protested, looking hurt.
And fuck that was not what he intended, not okay. Tony dropped the table to the table. “Because he’s your friend? Because they’re hunting down Hydra? I mean, that’s what I meant. That’s why I thought, you know, that you might have—Not that you have to, but I thought you would—because Steve.” He shrugged, grimacing. “Everyone likes Steve.”
James’s answering grin was small, reserved. “Thought I might stick around here for a while, you know?”
“Um. Okay?” Tony gestured to the metal arm. “Give it a whirl, maybe?”
Bucky looked to the metal contraption, before he lifted it expertly and reached out to tuck a stray strand of Tony’s unkempt hair behind his ear. Then the metal fingers trailed further against Tony’s hair, running smoothly through the dark locks before gently scratching against his scalp.
“What—” Tony swallowed, willing his heartbeat to slow down. “What are you doing?”
“Testing the arm,” Barnes replied, a smirk present on his lips but his eyes were lit with curiosity and something else, something child-like. “Seems like it works. I can feel your hair, it feels like actual hair between my fingers.”
“Y-yeah—That’s the sensors, made them electro-magnetic to immit—imitate—” Tony stuttered as Barnes’s fingers encircled the back of his neck, the cool metal giving a quick, gentle massage to the tight muscles of Tony’s neck, before the metal hand trailed across the inventor’s jawline, thumb finally resting on Tony’s lower lip. “Listen,” he demanded, closing his eyes even as he leaned into the touch. “I can’t. I mean. I can’t do—this, whatever you’re doing—I want—It’s going to break me, James. If you’re just fucking with me right now, and you’re going to leave, please. Please. Just do it already.”
“What if I don’t wanna go anywhere?” Barnes muttered. “What if I wanted to stay here?”
“You—” Tony blinked. “What? Why?”
James huffed a frustrated sound, pulling away. He leaned back into the sofa, letting his metal hand fall to his knee. “Maybe I’m tired of being what everyone thinks. Steve, he keeps calling me Bucky. And yeah, I remember him now, remember the war and all, but it doesn’t feel like me. Doesn’t feel real. It’s like watching a movie, so long ago that it no longer feels right.”
Tony dropped to the sofa beside him, relishing how James (James!) leaned into his side, their shoulders touching, firm and warm. “Yeah.”
“He doesn’t even have any scars,” James exclaimed, exasperated. As though it explained everything. “And I—I look in the mirror and sometimes—sometimes—”
“It’s like you don’t recognize the reflection, even though you know it’s you?” Tony finished.
“Yeah. But here,” James gestured to the sofa, and beyond to the workshop, to where U and Dum-E were charging, and beyond, to the glass cases where the last of the Iron Man suits were stored. “Here my scars make sense. This makes sense. This makes sense. I know I’m in the future now, when I’m here.”
Tony chuckled. “And here I was planning on posting up a pride flag or something, to remind you that it’s the 21st century now, with marriage and all—” he trailed off, noticing Barnes’s metal hand tracing nervous patterns against his leg. Right. The guy’s from the 1940s. Tony grimaced. “But somehow I think that would make you uncomfortable. Never mind.”
“Would be kinda hypocritical if it did, punk,” Barnes muttered, before covering it with a cough. “Actually, I wanted to ask you something. Now that everyone’s gone.”
“Yeah sure, you can stay here,” Tony waved it off, eyes crinkling as though he’d been joking, earlier, and reached for his coffee mug.
“Good,” James’s fingers beat a steady rhythm against his leg. “But I wanted to ask if I could kiss you, you idiot.”
Tony sputtered, spitting coffee out across the floor. U beeped in displeasure, whistling a tune as he went for the mop.
“Damn it, Stark,” James muttered. “You coulda just said no, you don’t have to act so surprised—”
“Yes!” Tony blurted out, wiping the coffee from his chin. “Fuck’s sake, yes!”
“Yes?” the former assassin blinked, his own shock clear across his expression. “Really?”
“Really, really,” Tony plopped his coffee mug into U’s waiting claw.
“Okay,” James reached with his metal arm, wrapping it carefully around Tony’s shoulder as he pulled the shorter man closer, moments before touching his lips to Tony’s.
It was over almost immediately, a gentle brush of lips and tongue before Barnes pulled back, blue eyes twinkling anxiously as he studied Stark’s face. “Was that— are we—?”
Tony huffed a laugh, leaned into James, letting his forehead rest against the taller man’s cheek. “I admit,” he stuttered, his breath warm against James’s neck, “when you came down here today, I was not expecting that. I mean—don’t get me wrong—I’m really, really glad that just happened, but I might throw up right now, I’m so nervous. Don’t wanna fuck this up. I’m not good at—did I tell you about my last relationship? I sort of almost got her killed—it wasn’t—“
“Tony,” James interrupted.
“Hmm?” the engineer mumbled.
Tony exhaled, tucked against the metal arm; it radiated false heat,Tony’s design—his design and construction and sweat and blood and tears. And maybe some new scars on his fingers. But it didn’t matter, because Barnes had scars, too. “Make me,” Tony challenged, looking up to meet James’s eyes with a mischievous sparkle.
“Fine,” James said, grinning as he pulled Tony in again for another kiss.
And everything else—the lawyers and shrinks and pardons and everything else Tony had planned—nothing else mattered anymore, not when James was here, warm against his side and safe and here.